AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 435

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Session 435: Buddhism Transformed: Globalization and Modernity

Organizer: Abraham Zablocki, Agnes Scott College, USA

The global circulation of Buddhist ideas, institutions, and practices has transformed the religion, both in its various Asian homelands, and in new transnational contexts. This transformation includes not only the oft-noted export of Buddhisms from Asia to the West and elsewhere, but also the intra-Asian exposure of particular strands of Buddhist tradition to new interlocutors in other Asian contexts, as well as the recirculation of new interpretations of Buddhist doctrine and practice back into Asian locales from the West, through new translation projects, the emergence of pop Buddhist art and literature, and the efforts, both in Asia and elsewhere, to constitute new forms of specifically “modern” Buddhism. The papers in this panel explore the diverse aspects of this transformation, with particular attention to the ways that the globalization of Buddhism is fostering new and surprising formulations of Buddhist thought and practice, while also recognizing the continuing emphasis, throughout Buddhist history, on the importance of continuity with Buddhism’s many pasts. By contrasting the experience of different Buddhist communities, both in Asia and beyond, as they attempt to adapt their religion to the challenges and opportunities presented by globalization and modernity, the members of this panel seek to identify underlying themes and commonalities, both with regards to the cultural and religious transformation of Asian Buddhisms, and as with regard to what these transformations reveal about the meaning of the signifiers “Asia” and “Buddhism” in an era of intensifying globalization.

Reconceptualizing “Modern” Buddhism
Abraham Zablocki, Agnes Scott College, USA

This paper examines the way in which the trope of “modern” Buddhism has been used to interpret transformations in Buddhist societies over the past two centuries. I argue that the trope, as currently formulated, does not adequately describe the complexity of contemporary forms of Buddhism. This is because the concept of modern Buddhism, and even more so its antecedent “Protestant Buddhism,” was concocted in reference to European colonial encounters with Buddhist societies, particularly the Theravada countries of Sri Lanka and Thailand, in ways that foregrounded Buddhist resistance to, and accommodation with, the challenges of Christian missionary efforts and political colonialism. This trope has served the anthropology of Buddhism well, insofar as it has helped us to recognize the many parallels between multiple Buddhist modernities and the ways in which these parallels reflect recurring political, religious, and economic challenges and transformations. However, it has also exaggerated the tension between an “old” “traditional” Buddhism and a “new” “modern” “rational” Buddhism, which describes contemporary forms of Buddhism poorly. Many Buddhists move easily between patterns of belief and practice that would be glossed under the rubric of “modern Buddhism,” and others that are clearly “traditional.” By examining contemporary globalized Tibetan Buddhism, I argue that the trope of modern Buddhism needs to be reformulated in ways that are not so powerfully rooted in the particular past of European colonial encounters, and which account for Buddhism’s success in simultaneously exemplifying rationality and enchantment

Jodo Shinshu: Modern Movements and Global Concerns
John S. Harding, University of Lethbridge, Canada

Although the terms are not equivalent, globalization and modernization are nonetheless closely linked forces in developments of Buddhism during the past 150 years. Cross-cultural currents have influenced modern reformulations of Buddhism and propelled the spread of Buddhist communities beyond their traditional Asian bases. Buddhist groups in the new outposts respond to local conditions as well as to competing visions of their tradition's form and role in a new time and place. This paper seeks to navigate the confluence of global and modern Buddhism by examining concerns and responses shaping Jodo Shinshu at select times in, and beyond, Japan. I will contrast and link the global dimensions of Shin modernism in Meiji Japan with tensions between tradition and innovation in Jodo Shinshu's global developments after the Meiji Era. Particular focus will be devoted to North America, where Jodo Shinshu was the dominant form of Buddhism for more than half of the 20th century. These oldest Buddhist communities in Hawaii, mainland USA, and Canada have faced different challenges than more recent Buddhist immigrants; their multigenerational histories provide unique perspectives on Buddhist transformation while relating present concerns with Meiji anxieties.

Translating Differences: Lamas, Lotsawas and the Tibetan Buddhist Literary Heritage
Martijn van Beek, , Denmark

The translation of the Tibetan Buddhist literary heritage into English and other modern languages has been an uneven process. What should be translated and how was mostly decided by individual teachers and their translators or translation committees. Priority has usually been given to making available texts currently considered to be the most vital by those lineages, as well as the oral teachings of current masters. Recently several major gatherings have taken place that have aimed at discussing common concerns, creating common resources, and where possible coordinate and collaborate on projects. The most ambitious current translation projects include the Tengyur Translation Project headed by Robert Thurman at Columbia University and the Buddhist Literary Heritage Project under the guidance of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Conferences in Boulder (2008), Bir (2009) and Sarnath (2011) brought together Tibetan masters, dharma translators and university-based scholars, offering a window on how profound differences, e.g. between modern and traditional criteria of authenticity and authority, between lineage loyalty and universal visions, between the economies of publishing and of merit, are articulated, negotiated and, in many cases, transcended in efforts to bring the words of the Buddha to contemporary audiences in the West and in Asia. The formation of a global network of teachers, translators and sponsors working for a larger common vision may signal a new phase in the formation of modern Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, even as it puts into relief the profound challenges that remain.

On Recent Transformations of Buddhist Doctrine
Mario D'Amato, Rollins College, USA

One aspect of understanding the transformation of Buddhism is considering the ways in which Buddhist doctrine has been and continues to be transformed, especially as Buddhism moves into other cultural spheres and as it deepens its engagement with modernity and post-modernity. While the vibrancy of a tradition may in some sense be measured by its ability to transform and adapt to altered environments, there may always be questions regarding which transformations represent genuine growth and adaptation, preserving authenticity in change, and which simply abandon tradition. Indeed, within the Buddhist tradition itself, no small amount of attention was given to such questions. In this paper, I propose to do two things: (1) offer an overview of two significant and related recent attempts to further develop and transform Buddhist doctrine, namely the interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in terms of paraconsistent logic and in terms of fictionalism; and (2) offer some reflections on what might be considered an “authentic” transformation of Buddhist doctrine, as opposed to a facile appropriation. Here, rather than approaching the issue in doctrinal terms, I will attempt to approach the question obliquely, in psychological terms, primarily through a consideration of Erich Fromm’s discussion of two forms of psychoanalysis, which he terms the “cure of the soul” and “social adjustment.” Through this discussion, I hope to offer some thoughts on just what we consider to be a transformation of Buddhism, through reflecting on the question of the transformation of Buddhist doctrine.