"From Modern to Postmodern"

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“Buddhism” was defined by classical texts, and passages amenable to women’s equality and democracy could be found in such texts; hence “Buddhism” was in line with these values, no matter what the conditions on the ground among actual Buddhists might have been. Today, Buddhists themselves address these issues not just as matters of textual hermeneutics but at the social and institutional level. These socially engaged modes of Buddhism have also begun to reform the roles of women within modernist Buddhist settings, sometimes leading to radical departures from traditional roles and opportunities.

Today conscious efforts are being made to amalgamate Buddhism, not just in representation and theory but in practice. This endeavor is made possible by particular modernist constructions of Buddhism as a “technique” or “way of life” that holds to no particular dogmas or beliefs and thus is unusually compatible with other religious traditions. This selective combination of elements of Buddhism with non-Buddhist traditions is creating tensions that are important to the shape of contemporary Buddhist modernism: tensions between radically detraditionalized and retraditionalized Buddhism, between Buddhism as privatized spirituality and engaged social activism, and between localized and globalizing forms of the dharma.

While some contemporary detraditionalizers see their renditions of the dharma as rooted in the “original teachings,” others have quite consciously distanced themselves from tradition and admitted they are developing something new. Although extreme detraditionalization has gained some currency in the West, it in no way exhausts the main trends in the postmodern condition of Buddhism. In fact, we see across the globe a number of movements attempting to reappropriate tradition, and to reassert more conventional views of the dharma. Such “returns” are themselves products of modernity: they reconstruct tradition in response to some of modernity’s dominant themes, attempting to imagine their opposites in the ancient past. Some are not simply traditional forms of Buddhism but retraditionalized forms. They do not necessarily attempt abandon modernity in toto – they often use technologies and may draw upon the language of Buddhist modernism – but they have rejected some of its innovations in favor of attempting to reconstruct more orthodox aspects of Buddhism.

The explosion of socially engaged Buddhism onto the international scene stands in stark contrast to privatized, commercialized interpretations and appropriations. This transnational movement combines the meanings of Buddhist terminology to address systemic suffering and liberation in this-worldly terms – the emancipatory strains of modern western thought.

That there is tension between privatized and engaged modes of Buddhism does not mean that the latter dispenses with the traditional concern for meditation and mindfulness. To the contrary, many authors consider these activities essential to the practice of political activism, combining them with social activism.

Buddhist modernism’s departures from tradition and hybridization with western thought and practice invite not questions not only of adaptation and authenticity but also of Buddhism’s capacity to challenge the normative cultural values of modernity and the West.


Reference: McMahan, David L.: ‘The Making of Buddhist Modernism’, Oxford University Press, New York (2008): 241-65.

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