Thanks for posting this Mike. As you know, this is a topic which I'm very interested in and concerned about. I'd like to extrapolate on what Olendzki suggests. I've written a long post as this is touches on what I've been coming to terms with both personally and professionally. So I thank anyone in advance if you stay with me.
I've raised questions about Protestant Buddhism several times in past discussions. I don't really see it as a necessarily negative term though—it simply points to a HISTORICALLY SITUATED interpretation of Buddhism, and there's nothing inherently 'good' or 'bad' about that. If anything, it affirms what we learn in Buddhism about the conditioned nature of reality. However, as Olendzki alludes to somewhat obliquely, problems may arise when such a historically situated interpretation is not recognised as such, when conditionality is not recognised as conditionality (isn't this ignorance what we're all striving to overcome?). The modern, textualised, rationalistic approach to Buddhism which foregrounds meditation over other communal, ritual, and/or devotional practices IS one such historically situated interpretation.
Yet, if we simply survey discourses on Buddhism today (especially those circulating in Western cultures), we find that they tend to present themselves as Buddhism stripped bare of the 'cultural trappings' of Asian societies. Accordingly, these discourses tend to also present themselves, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, as how Buddhism was 'originally' meant to be. Now, it is certainly important that the approaches to Buddhism we adopt should not simply take on the cultural habits of other societies which are not conditioned for our own environments and settings; we have to approach the Dhamma in ways that address the needs of our own environments and settings. But if this is the case, then, the modern approaches to Buddhism we follow are far from being free of cultural trappings—they are in fact thoroughly
cultural, shaped by historically specific conditions, arising out of a particular time and place. And while it is important to be careful that we do not misunderstand the teachings—hence, the need for ongoing clarification and exchange of views—to attempt to legitimise one's interpretation of Buddhism on the basis of 'originality' becomes unhelpful as it obscures the historically situatedness of one's own understanding, the conditonality enabling one's own interpretation in the first place—not to mention that it leads to conflict and sectarianism.
A key problem, I believe, is that the idea of 'modern' is widely assumed as neutral and universal. But it is not. It developed out of a specific European history. And part of this European history involves colonialism. The domination of colonialism was secured by projecting a Eurocentric worldview as a kind of neutral, universal standard for evaluating the progress of civilizations. When judged against such a supposedly neutral and universal standard, the worldviews, customs, beliefs, and practices of non-Western civilizations are then at best regarded as 'cultural trappings' which would be naturally discarded as they 'progress' towards modernity, or at worse indicative of moral and/or intellectual deficiencies.
We of course now live in a so-called postcolonial era, but the effects of Western imperialism still reverberates on in many ways. As I'm sure you are aware, critics of globalisation have pointed out how the international monetary system and the powerful influence of Western-owned multinational corporations reflect some of the more concrete after-effects of Western imperialism. But there are other more subtle ways in which these after-effects persist. What Olenzki suggests—i.e. being mindful of how our understanding and practice of the Dhamma developed out of a historically situated process of 'Protestantism'; being circumspect about how we talk about 'modern Buddhism' vis-a-vis 'traditional Buddhism'—is one way to be aware of the subtle reverberations of these after-effects, a way to be heedful so that we do not perpetuate the unskilfulness of prior historical moments that still cast a long shadow over us.
Being someone who straddles cultures—someone who grew up learning his 'mother tongue' as a second language in school (yet, still being totally incompetent in the language because of my preference for the entertainment genres of the West); someone for whom his ancestral inheritance of Buddhism made no sense until it was re-presented and made intelligible in Western ways of thinking—the tensions arising out of these after-effects are especially acute for me. So I'm very glad and thankful that a prominent lay, Western teacher like Olendzki is making the effort to raise awareness about this issue. And thanks again Mike for posting this!