‘Original Buddhism’ originated within a Hindu society, however, the Buddha did not accept the basis upon which Hindu society had been built. By teaching a new and hitherto unknown method of progress on the way to enlightenment he became the founder of a separate religious tradition. Early Buddhist community was a spiritual élite community – since not all members of a given society were considered capable of following the Buddha’s instructions in full; however, lay followers were in fact an essential part of the community – within a multi-religious and pluralistic society.
Although, originally, the community – the Sangha – regulated its affairs independently and without the participation of outsiders, became increasingly involved in secular interest out of the necessity to take care of and control its possessions and developed into an influential force within state and society. In the third century B.C. King Asoka considered a reform of the Sangha – ‘Sasana Reform’ – necessary, by which, for the first time in history, he had exercised some degree of state control over the Sangha. Although this was generally regarded by Buddhists as a great service in the interest of their religion, it cannot be overlooked that the Sangha had in fact lost part of its original independence. When the Sangha became an integral part of a particular socio-political structure in the following centuries, this may be described as the system of ‘traditional (Theravada) Buddhism’.
In ‘traditional Buddhism’ we meet with models of attempts at improving and restructuring society as a ‘Buddhist society’, whereas in ‘modernistic Buddhism’ Buddhist have the “freedom to construct a Buddhist economic and social ethic suited to the age”. Such constructions must be in conformity with or at least not in contradiction to, the teaching of the Buddha. But they are of course, not ‘Buddhist’ in the sense of being legitimized by the original Teachings of the Buddha, because the Buddha clearly stated such secular doctrines are not to be considered as the Buddha’s word; however, modernists rely on their own interpretation of the Buddha’s word.
In spite of the drastic changes of the overall situation, several of the leading figures of contemporary Buddhism go on repeating the old formulae and recommendations for the rebuilding of a Buddhist society which are well known from the classical speeches and writings of this ‘standard Buddhistic modernism’. They have simply forgotten their own primary goal, viz. to adjust Buddhism to the needs of today. There are many Buddhists who have recognized that they can no longer afford to stand back from the attempts to tackle the urgent new problems of modern times and that the traditional answers are not sufficient any more.
Reference: Bechert, Heinz, Buddhist Modernism: Present Situation and Current Trends, in Buddhism into the Year 2000: Conference Proceedings, Dhammakaya Foundation 1994.