Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 3:52 am

tobes wrote:
catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


Buddhism is not inherently a critique of anything. Those who interpret it as such are in error. I have not noticed large numbers of Amish turning to Buddhism, or vice versa, so I conclude that Buddhism has nothing in common with anti-technological positions.



Well, I suppose I must in error then. I think the Buddha presented a way which was both a metaphysical and social critique of the Vedic traditions which preceded him.


Suppose he did, suppose there is a reactionary element in the Dharma as presented by the historical Buddha. In order to use this as a demonstration of Buddhism being a critique of modernism, you would then have to show that the society preceding Buddhism was modern in some sense. I think it would be simpler to view any reactionary element in Buddhism as a reaction against a decidely non-modern world, one dominated by feudalism, caste, and a monopoly on education by the wealthy.



Later traditions have also been premised on a methodology of critique: the Prasangika Madhyamakins exemplify a relentlessly critical approach.

Can one accept the first noble truth and not be involved in critique?


It may well be so. But let's bear in mind their target. In what sense could the previous versions of Buddhism be termed "modern"? Your point about the first noble truth begs a question. What do you regard as the difference between critical thinking and the application of plain old vanilla reason?


I agree that many forms of Buddhism do not (or have no basis to) assume an anti-technological posture. But some do. There are strong ascetic traditions such as the Thai Forest tradition which are unlikely to be celebrating the iPod anytime soon....


:namaste:


Point well taken. But I don't think the primary motivation of the forest monks is a dislike of technology per se. That would be a form of aversion and an obstacle to the path. I think they just believe peace, a simple life and isolation are useful conditions for the development enlightenment.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:15 am

tobes wrote:
catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?


Buddhism is not inherently a critique of anything. Those who interpret it as such are in error. I have not noticed large numbers of Amish turning to Buddhism, or vice versa, so I conclude that Buddhism has nothing in common with anti-technological positions.

Well, I suppose I must in error then. I think the Buddha presented a way which was both a metaphysical and social critique of the Vedic traditions which preceded him.

Indeed. The Brahmajālasutta rejects 62 views held by various śramaṇa and brāhmaṇā teachers as being incapable of leading to liberation.

tobes wrote:Later traditions have also been premised on a methodology of critique: the Prasangika Madhyamakins exemplify a relentlessly critical approach.

All Mādhyamikas, not just those who exclusively employ prasaṅga. And also, the Dohas of Sarahapāda, et al, contain pointed criticisms of Brāhmaṇa, Jaina, mainstream Buddhist, and even some mantrayāna practices.

tobes wrote:Can one accept the first noble truth and not be involved in critique?

Sn 3.12: Dvayatānupassanā Sutta:

    Entrenched in name and form,
    They conceive that “This is true.”

    In whatever way (worldlings) conceive it,
    It turns out other than that.
    For that is what is false about it.
    Whatever is transitory certainly has a false nature.

All the best,

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:23 am

catmoon wrote:Suppose he did, suppose there is a reactionary element in the Dharma as presented by the historical Buddha. In order to use this as a demonstration of Buddhism being a critique of modernism, you would then have to show that the society preceding Buddhism was modern in some sense. I think it would be simpler to view any reactionary element in Buddhism as a reaction against a decidely non-modern world, one dominated by feudalism, caste, and a monopoly on education by the wealthy.

I'm not sure that you're accurately representing Tobes initial question. It seems to me that Tobes was asking to what extent are contemporary Buddhists relating to Dharma as a critique of modernity. Hopefully he will clarify.

All the best,

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 4:30 am

tobes wrote:Yes, I agree that rationality plays an important role in most Buddhist traditions. I guess it depends on how we define rationality. I think that the development of prajna is in many respects quite distinct from the more abstracted and mathematical forms of rationality which developed through the Enlightenment period.



Well that's an interesting thing to say. What would be the differences? Subject matter? A certain looseness in selecting axioms?


But nonetheless, I often encounter western Buddhists who have a particular disdain for either form of rationality. In fact, if I'm honest, I was one such character when I was younger, so I understand the position well: an anti-intellectual ethos, the privileging of experience over reflection, the rejection of logic for aesthetics or intuition.......

How often does one hear the line: "thinking/concepts/philosophy is the problem not the solution"? I think, a very common position among practitioners, sometimes with good grounding in dharma, often without.


The only time I have heard anything like that recently (honest!) was from a retired shingle sawyer with a grade school education and a profound hatred of religion and academia in all their forms. If one repudiates education, thought, and dialogue, how do you settle differences? With a shotgun? Or with the organizational equivalent in terms of force?


I do not think that Buddhist ethics can be characterised as utilitarian. It certainly has consequentialist dimensions, as you point out, but it also has deontological dimensions (vows, precepts) and virtue-ethics dimensions (the cultivation of moral character over time). Many scholars tend to see Buddhist ethics as ostensibly a kind of virtue-ethic.

:namaste:


Hmm. We could look at the motivations for gaining entry to Heaven as opposed to the motivation for attaining Enlightenment. Is it all done just because it is The Right Thing To Do? I have my doubts, at least in the Buddhist case. I have spent so much time listening to means and methods of attaining enlightenment that it sounds pretty utilitarian to me, with the concrete objective of getting rid of all this pesky suffering.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 5:12 am

tobes wrote:Yes, I suppose I was alluding more to the unconscious rejection of capitalism rather than someone turning to Buddhism on the basis of an overt and deliberate atunement to political economy.

But if this latter form were to happen, and I'm sure it does, I'm not sure why you would conceive this as an act of fanatical ideology and not reflexive understanding?

:namaste:


The thing I would regard as fanatical would be the act of sitting down, making a list of political beliefs, and then cross checking that against the press releases of various religions in order to find a rational fit. Such a procedure merely assures that one's worldview will not suffer any inconvenient challenges.

There may be something like this happening unconsciously in the selection of a religion, but a True Seeker (lol) is open to novel and differing viewpoints, and the systems of thought that support them. This seems to me to be a more legitimate path, less doctrinaire.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Sun Jan 09, 2011 5:15 am

catmoon wrote:Rigorous rationality has been around for a very long time.

It was only with the sustained momentum of the European enlightenment that rationalism came to represent a fairly mainstream worldview exerting social influences beyond intellectual elites. This social displacement of other worldviews expanded greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the mid 20th century it was not at all uncommon for Westerners to accept either scientific materialism and atheism, or a liberal theology based on the hermeneutics of Biblical criticism.

All the best,

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 5:19 am

Yeshe D. wrote:I'm not sure that you're accurately representing Tobes initial question. It seems to me that Tobes was asking to what extent are contemporary Buddhists relating to Dharma as a critique of modernity. Hopefully he will clarify.

Geoff


I'm not sure that Tobe is accurately representing Tobes' original question!

But, once we clear up these loose threads, we might very well continue with the question as you phrased it. I have been wondering if that was what Tobes was really getting at.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 6:55 am

Yeshe D. wrote:
catmoon wrote:Suppose he did, suppose there is a reactionary element in the Dharma as presented by the historical Buddha. In order to use this as a demonstration of Buddhism being a critique of modernism, you would then have to show that the society preceding Buddhism was modern in some sense. I think it would be simpler to view any reactionary element in Buddhism as a reaction against a decidely non-modern world, one dominated by feudalism, caste, and a monopoly on education by the wealthy.

I'm not sure that you're accurately representing Tobes initial question. It seems to me that Tobes was asking to what extent are contemporary Buddhists relating to Dharma as a critique of modernity. Hopefully he will clarify.

All the best,

Geoff


Yes, that is more or less what I'm asking.

I think that these references to Indian history are very relevant though. Because perhaps there is something quite central to the Buddhist approach which remains fairly constant no matter what features of a particular society are manifest (i.e. whether it is industrial capitalism or Vedic India).

To formulate it simply, societies are generally not enlightened. To move in the direction of enlightenment, one therefore needs to reject the conventions of society, whatever they may be. The basic premise here is that avidya is what really governs things throughout most (all?) times and places.

I would hesitate to call this form of rejection a reactionary move, because that usually signifies a deep conservatism; a desire to preserve the status quo.....rather than reject or change it.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 7:15 am

catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:Yes, I agree that rationality plays an important role in most Buddhist traditions. I guess it depends on how we define rationality. I think that the development of prajna is in many respects quite distinct from the more abstracted and mathematical forms of rationality which developed through the Enlightenment period.



Well that's an interesting thing to say. What would be the differences? Subject matter? A certain looseness in selecting axioms?



Jeez, that's really a very profound question. Ouch, it hurts me to even think on it.

In a nutshell, I suppose a very important distinction would be that prajna is not an abstracted and pure form of reason. And it is definitely not tied to an individual thinking substance (as reason is say with Descartes).....it is more a phenomenological insight into reality.

No, I can't do this.....! :rolleye:

Someone else??

:namaste:
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 7:29 am

catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:
I do not think that Buddhist ethics can be characterised as utilitarian. It certainly has consequentialist dimensions, as you point out, but it also has deontological dimensions (vows, precepts) and virtue-ethics dimensions (the cultivation of moral character over time). Many scholars tend to see Buddhist ethics as ostensibly a kind of virtue-ethic.

:namaste:


Hmm. We could look at the motivations for gaining entry to Heaven as opposed to the motivation for attaining Enlightenment. Is it all done just because it is The Right Thing To Do? I have my doubts, at least in the Buddhist case. I have spent so much time listening to means and methods of attaining enlightenment that it sounds pretty utilitarian to me, with the concrete objective of getting rid of all this pesky suffering.


Yes, but the Buddhist ethical path is premised on cultivating wholesome dispositions and eradicating unwholesome ones. Mental intention plays a critical role in that process of cultivation. Once you have intentions and moral cultivation playing a central role, then the consequences of ones actions are of far less moral significance.

Take the paramita of dana for instance. The actual consequence of giving some change to a beggar is almost wholly insignificant compared with the disposition of generosity arising as a wholesome mental event. Sure, it's great for the beggar, but the action is considered meritorious not because the beggar can go buy some food, but because you have developed a positive mental disposition

Utilitarianism is only interested in the consequences.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jnana » Sun Jan 09, 2011 11:58 am

tobes wrote:To formulate it simply, societies are generally not enlightened. To move in the direction of enlightenment, one therefore needs to reject the conventions of society, whatever they may be. The basic premise here is that avidya is what really governs things throughout most (all?) times and places.

I agree.

tobes wrote:I would hesitate to call this form of rejection a reactionary move, because that usually signifies a deep conservatism; a desire to preserve the status quo.....rather than reject or change it.

Yes, Thurman's "inner revolution" may be a more accurate designation. Although I wouldn't agree with Thurman's premise that Tibet was ever a modernist society. (At least that's how I recall Thurman articulating his version of Tibetan social history. But I read the book well over 10 years ago so I may not be accurately recalling what he said.)

All the best,

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 12:11 pm

tobes wrote:


Jeez, that's really a very profound question. Ouch, it hurts me to even think on it.

[/quote]

Well I'm glad someone else is feeling the strain! This thread has had me referring to dictionaries like mad, both to see exactly what you are saying, and to vet some of my own blather before casually tossing it out on to the net. I don't know why these seemingly simple and innocent questions have repeatedly proved so difficult. Usually I sit an stare at your posts, composing reply after reply, finding them inadequate, groping for relevance and so on. Most unusal, it's as if my mind is rebelling at every second thought. Ah well, bash on regardless...


In a nutshell, I suppose a very important distinction would be that prajna is not an abstracted and pure form of reason. And it is definitely not tied to an individual thinking substance (as reason is say with Descartes).....it is more a phenomenological insight into reality.

No, I can't do this.....! :rolleye:

Someone else??

:namaste:


A pretty good attempt. Prajna, if taken as the wisdom/insight that destroys afflictions, seems to have a character of immediate insight. And insight need not follow the forms of classical logic. Indeed it might be defined as a process that yields answers without resorting to logic. A mundane example might be certain newspaper puzzles that require the solving of anagrams. Sometimes an answer may be found by systematic exhaustion of possibilities, but on other occaisions the answer simply appears to the mind before the thinking process even gets started. I often wonder where those solutions come from.

So we have a nice distinction between prajna and logical thought. Let's put it on the shelf, I'm sure we will find a use for it later. :jumping:

Uh, we may have to bear in mind that prajna may at various times encompass both forms of thought. I'm not ready to consign the possibility of logically arriving at an insight to the garbage heap.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 12:47 pm

tobes wrote:Yes, but the Buddhist ethical path is premised on cultivating wholesome dispositions and eradicating unwholesome ones. Mental intention plays a critical role in that process of cultivation. Once you have intentions and moral cultivation playing a central role, then the consequences of ones actions are of far less moral significance.

Take the paramita of dana for instance. The actual consequence of giving some change to a beggar is almost wholly insignificant compared with the disposition of generosity arising as a wholesome mental event. Sure, it's great for the beggar, but the action is considered meritorious not because the beggar can go buy some food, but because you have developed a positive mental disposition

Utilitarianism is only interested in the consequences.

:namaste:


The case could be made that Buddha was only interested in the result. For instance, he once pointed out that he only taught a tiny fraction of what he knew, and only those things that led to the eradication of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. He actively discouraged idle speculations on things like the origin of the universe and the powers of a Buddha, for the very reason that they did not contribute to the goal.


I am losing track of where we are going with all this. I mean I feel I have made a very nice little point here and all, but does it really matter whether or not the teachings are utilitarian?
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:52 pm

catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:Yes, but the Buddhist ethical path is premised on cultivating wholesome dispositions and eradicating unwholesome ones. Mental intention plays a critical role in that process of cultivation. Once you have intentions and moral cultivation playing a central role, then the consequences of ones actions are of far less moral significance.

Take the paramita of dana for instance. The actual consequence of giving some change to a beggar is almost wholly insignificant compared with the disposition of generosity arising as a wholesome mental event. Sure, it's great for the beggar, but the action is considered meritorious not because the beggar can go buy some food, but because you have developed a positive mental disposition

Utilitarianism is only interested in the consequences.

:namaste:


The case could be made that Buddha was only interested in the result. For instance, he once pointed out that he only taught a tiny fraction of what he knew, and only those things that led to the eradication of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. He actively discouraged idle speculations on things like the origin of the universe and the powers of a Buddha, for the very reason that they did not contribute to the goal.


I am losing track of where we are going with all this. I mean I feel I have made a very nice little point here and all, but does it really matter whether or not the teachings are utilitarian?


Actually, I think that it does really matter.

If there is one (very sweeping) generalisation I'd make about contemporary western society, it is that it is governed principally by a logic of utility. This is the cornerstone of a demand and supply curve, the underlying marketisation of all things referred to earlier in this thread. The maximisation of utility and the calculating of consequence is a governmental logic, a business logic and an individual logic. The Vedas of our time!

So in this sense we can move (quite perversely I know!) to a tentative conclusion on this question about western Buddhists and modernity. If Buddhism is in harmony with the ethics of utilitarianism, then perhaps it follows that it is also in harmony with the underlying ethos of contemporary western society: no need for reaction or radicalism, everything's just fine!

Or........

Buddhism in the west gets subsumed under this logic of utility; its own particular moral trajectory becomes distorted into something purely consequentialist.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 1:58 pm

Yeshe D. wrote:
tobes wrote:To formulate it simply, societies are generally not enlightened. To move in the direction of enlightenment, one therefore needs to reject the conventions of society, whatever they may be. The basic premise here is that avidya is what really governs things throughout most (all?) times and places.

I agree.

tobes wrote:I would hesitate to call this form of rejection a reactionary move, because that usually signifies a deep conservatism; a desire to preserve the status quo.....rather than reject or change it.

Yes, Thurman's "inner revolution" may be a more accurate designation. Although I wouldn't agree with Thurman's premise that Tibet was ever a modernist society. (At least that's how I recall Thurman articulating his version of Tibetan social history. But I read the book well over 10 years ago so I may not be accurately recalling what he said.)

All the best,

Geoff


I like Thurman's general sense that Buddhism has tended to engender fairly radical social changes wherever it has gone, but you're right, he does get a little too misty eyed/rose coloured glasses when thinking about Tibetan history.

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:05 pm

tobes wrote:To what extent does the Buddhist dharma present in the west as a critique of modernity?

Modernity is of course an extremely contested concept, but I think that we can broadly agree that it refers to the rise of industrial capitalism in the 17th century, and the respective technological, social and political changes embedded in that.

I'm particularly interested in two aspects here:

1/ Buddhism as a negation (escape from/critique of) the forms of instrumental rationality which (according to sociologists such as Weber) modernity demands of its subjects. Inclusive of this is a negation or critique of the ethics of utility and the individualism it presupposes.

2/ Turning to and drawing from Buddhism as a response to the economics or political economy of late capitalism. I.e. a rejection of the consumer lifestyle, the drive for profit, the premise of self-interest etc.

I suppose both of these refer to ideas of the European enlightenment, but let us leave that implicit for the time being, lest we bite off more than we can chew.

:namaste:


Hokay back to the original post. It seems common to me that people will use religion to justify themselves and their viewpoints. So, we should look at the demographics of Western Buddhists. There is a large chunk of it composed of ex-Christians and ex-Jews. There is a tendency, on leaving a religion, to reject it in its entirety and label the whole mess "wrong". There is also a tendency to lump together every bad thing conceptually. So a freshly rejected religion will occupy the "bad" bin along with all the stress-inducing flaws of society in general. Since the two are now conceptually close, a new tendency arises, whereby things that are conceptually close are thought to be the causes and effects of each other. The result is that idea that "This is a crappy, stressed out, greedy and immoral society and it all stems from Judeo-Christianity".

Despite the fact that this idea arises from a stream of horrendously flawed mental processes, it does not end there. A new Buddhist will naturally put Buddhism in the "good" bin which throws it into conflict with the old religion that now occupies that "bad" bin. Good cannot be bad, so now the fallacy arises that there is no good thing in the bad bin. Anything distinctive of the old religion OR the stressful modern society has to go in the "bad" bin, and among these is the traditional of scientific thought. Suddenly Buddhism appears diametrically opposed to rationalism and scientific thought.

So to answer the question, Buddhism presents as a critique of modernity to the same extent that we indulge ourselves in sloppy, overgeneralized and simplistic thinking.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:10 pm

catmoon wrote:
tobes wrote:


Jeez, that's really a very profound question. Ouch, it hurts me to even think on it.



Well I'm glad someone else is feeling the strain! This thread has had me referring to dictionaries like mad, both to see exactly what you are saying, and to vet some of my own blather before casually tossing it out on to the net. I don't know why these seemingly simple and innocent questions have repeatedly proved so difficult. Usually I sit an stare at your posts, composing reply after reply, finding them inadequate, groping for relevance and so on. Most unusal, it's as if my mind is rebelling at every second thought. Ah well, bash on regardless...


In a nutshell, I suppose a very important distinction would be that prajna is not an abstracted and pure form of reason. And it is definitely not tied to an individual thinking substance (as reason is say with Descartes).....it is more a phenomenological insight into reality.

No, I can't do this.....! :rolleye:

Someone else??

:namaste:


A pretty good attempt. Prajna, if taken as the wisdom/insight that destroys afflictions, seems to have a character of immediate insight. And insight need not follow the forms of classical logic. Indeed it might be defined as a process that yields answers without resorting to logic. A mundane example might be certain newspaper puzzles that require the solving of anagrams. Sometimes an answer may be found by systematic exhaustion of possibilities, but on other occaisions the answer simply appears to the mind before the thinking process even gets started. I often wonder where those solutions come from.

So we have a nice distinction between prajna and logical thought. Let's put it on the shelf, I'm sure we will find a use for it later. :jumping:

Uh, we may have to bear in mind that prajna may at various times encompass both forms of thought. I'm not ready to consign the possibility of logically arriving at an insight to the garbage heap.[/quote]

Yes, there are definitely different forms of prajna; it implies the discernment through language, logic, concepts etc, but also, meditative states which are not conceptual. The perfection of prajna (prajnaparamita) is of course the direct insight into the emptiness of phenomena.

I'm rather more worried about trying to get a handle on how reason/ rationality might be defined in the context of the European enlightenment. It's way too late where I come from to start thinking about Kant.....and then.....Hegel.... :rolleye: Nope! Bedtime. Someone else!

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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby catmoon » Sun Jan 09, 2011 2:29 pm

Have a good sleep. You'll need it because tomorrow you'll have to review the Critique of Pure Reason and half of Hegel, before noon, leaving the afternoon free for the composition of your next reply! And of course we will in reply throw Kierkegaard at you and then everything will go to the 108 hells in a handcart...
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby Jikan » Mon Jan 10, 2011 2:35 am

This has been a fantastic discussion so far.

I do not know how contemporary Buddhists relate to modernity as instrumental rationality, critically or otherwise. I do know that some have been concerned with it, and specifically concerned with the Buddhist practice as a kind of critical social theory (defined broadly as a critical understanding of contemporary social life). There may be a way to triangulate an answer from there.

One instance: I'd argue that Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a fine and contemporary critique of neoliberal patterns of consumption and identification, predating the use of the term "neoliberal" for that purpose.

By contrast, you have Slavoj Zizek arguing that contemporary "western Buddhism" is in fact an expression of consumer capitalism. Eske Mollgaard has a great article summarizing and then critiquing Zizek's work here on Buddhist grounds.

And it gets complicated in another way, where Ken Knabb (of the Situationist International anthology fame, and also a longtime Zen practitioner) moves from Buddhist premises to suggest that engaged Buddhism isn't radical enough in theory or practice to merit being called Buddhism. (Provocative comment: I'm of the view that Knabb is onto something here. Ken Jones' comments on critical social theory in The Social Face of Buddhism seem very thin soup to me...)

There's David Loy's book, Robert Hattam's book, and a host of others. The Critical Buddhists of Japan have a contribution to make here. Brook Ziporyn's experimental stuff, which is brilliant... And of course the Ambedkar Buddhist movement which is predicated on its own kind of critique of modernity, the postcolonial moment. And not just Mahayana examples: Miri Albahari works through the Theravadin tradition in creative ways through Analytical philos that some might find helpful (it's too Ken Wilber-y for my own taste). Might be worthwhile to compare her project to the Dhammic Socialism so vital to the Engaged Buddhist dialogue.

My point is that there's enough material out there to work from but it's a mountain of a research project just to find the constellation that will help get to your question. It's an excellent question. I have something of a bibliography started but I won't be writing on this topic much in the near future, sadly... so I'd like to know what others learn.
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Re: Western Buddhists, modernity and the European enlightenment

Postby tobes » Mon Jan 10, 2011 3:07 am

Jikan wrote:This has been a fantastic discussion so far.

I do not know how contemporary Buddhists relate to modernity as instrumental rationality, critically or otherwise. I do know that some have been concerned with it, and specifically concerned with the Buddhist practice as a kind of critical social theory (defined broadly as a critical understanding of contemporary social life). There may be a way to triangulate an answer from there.

One instance: I'd argue that Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is a fine and contemporary critique of neoliberal patterns of consumption and identification, predating the use of the term "neoliberal" for that purpose.

By contrast, you have Slavoj Zizek arguing that contemporary "western Buddhism" is in fact an expression of consumer capitalism. Eske Mollgaard has a great article summarizing and then critiquing Zizek's work here on Buddhist grounds.

And it gets complicated in another way, where Ken Knabb (of the Situationist International anthology fame, and also a longtime Zen practitioner) moves from Buddhist premises to suggest that engaged Buddhism isn't radical enough in theory or practice to merit being called Buddhism. (Provocative comment: I'm of the view that Knabb is onto something here. Ken Jones' comments on critical social theory in The Social Face of Buddhism seem very thin soup to me...)

There's David Loy's book, Robert Hattam's book, and a host of others. The Critical Buddhists of Japan have a contribution to make here. Brook Ziporyn's experimental stuff, which is brilliant... And of course the Ambedkar Buddhist movement which is predicated on its own kind of critique of modernity, the postcolonial moment. And not just Mahayana examples: Miri Albahari works through the Theravadin tradition in creative ways through Analytical philos that some might find helpful (it's too Ken Wilber-y for my own taste). Might be worthwhile to compare her project to the Dhammic Socialism so vital to the Engaged Buddhist dialogue.

My point is that there's enough material out there to work from but it's a mountain of a research project just to find the constellation that will help get to your question. It's an excellent question. I have something of a bibliography started but I won't be writing on this topic much in the near future, sadly... so I'd like to know what others learn.


I guess it was only a matter of time before Zizek got put on the table! I read some of his work on Buddhism in the west, and it is worth engaging with despite the fact that he so obviously fails to understand Buddhist metaphysics (unsurprisingly, he conflates emptiness with the Lacanian lack). Because, it is no doubt the case that many western Buddhists also fail to understand Buddhist metaphysics! And so, the approach might be to try and get some respite (meditative calm, peace, happiness) from the pressures of western society, without really giving up all the normative acts which sustain such a life. And from Zizek's point of view, this is a deeply political gesture, in the sense that it is so resistant to any real political dimension. That is, it really endorses the status quo.

I agree that Trungpa presents a definite (but implicit) critique of neo-liberalism. I actually think that the Buddhist dharma, in all of its forms, traditions and manifestations tends towards a clear rejection of some key assumptions fundamental to neo-liberalism.

But yes, you're right about the question: it is a question for a century or so of good work, not a mere internet thread. I haven't found very much high quality work in this area; my general sense is that usually the Buddhist side is handled with great aplomb, but the western side is often poorly grounded. Engaged Buddhism tends to suffer from a similar trait.....

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