in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition.
Edited by Steven Heine and Charles
S. Prebish. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, x + 287 pages,
ISBN 0-19-514697-2 (hardback), £39.50; 0-19-514698-0 (paperback),
Lecturer in Religious Studies
The Open University
edited collection of essays "explores how a variety of traditional
Buddhist schools and movements have been affected by encountering
the myriad forces of modernization, especially those factors unique
to the Asian experience" (p. 5). The volume manages to be both
a good read and a rich resource. Its coverage is satisfyingly broad
and varied as it charts the trajectories of individuals and of institutions,
including nation states, within the somewhat slippery era of "the
modern." Of course there is always more to say, but the strength
of this volume lies in the fact that it manages to give a flavor
of the variety of adaptations made and being made within Buddhism,
not merely as a result of its encounter with modernization, but
also because of its historical diversity. In a book that probably
has a chapter or two to fit everyone's interests perusal of the
index certainly gave me room for optimism I found it rewarding
also to find areas new to me addressed in accessible and engaging
In "Aniconism versus Iconism in Thai Buddhism,"
Donald Swearer argues that "the increasing popularity of image
consecration rites in recent years reflects not a strengthening
of Buddhist institutions in Thai society but their weakening as
a consequence of the impact of the decline of the sangha in other
areas, for example, education" (p. 15). Swearer shows how,
in Thailand, old debates about the nature, purpose and validity
of ritual objects are given a new social and political context.
Nathan Katz traces the history of the Dambulla cave temples in an
illustrated essay about Sinhalese Buddhism. Katz uses this case
study to argue that modern Sinhalese Buddhism began in Kandyan times
and is not, as some have argued, entirely the product of its encounter
with the British. The question of whether recent developments in
Buddhism result from re-evaluation of tradition, the westernization
process, indigenous political circumstances, and/or other causal
factors is a theme that runs through the collection.
Prebish reviews the content of the Vinaya and considers
the problems associated with changes to monastic discipline in the
West, principally in relation to the Theravada tradition. In "Varying
the Vinaya: Creative Responses to Modernity" he argues that
cultural and climatic conditions in Western nations mean that certain
precepts are difficult to maintain. These include precepts which
relate to touching women, clothing, travelling in the course of
monastic life, and eating with lay supporters. Prebish cites some
examples where adaptations have been made, but also shows that there
is currently no consensus about the validity of adapting the Vinaya.
A highlight is Raoul
Birnbaum's engaging essay "Master Hongyi Looks Back."
The Master Hongyi of the title is a complex character also known
as Li Shutong (1880-1942), a famous Chinese "modern man"
skilled in the arts who became a monk in adult life. The essay incorporates
a translation of Hongyi's autobiographical account, My Experiences
in "Leaving Home at West Lake." We learn that Master
Hongyi was in the habit of frequently changing his name in the context
of both lay and monastic life. This constant re-presentation of
self is one of the reasons why Birnbaum constructs from Hongyi's
own writings, and from a photographic record of his life, what he
calls a "performance of self." Birnbaum situates his discussion
within the context of a tradition of autobiographical and biographical
writing by Chinese monks and patriarchs. Of particular interest
is the way in which Hongyi continued to make what appear to be highly
self-conscious presentations of himself as his attitudes changed.
These presentations culminated in the autobiographical account which
Birnbaum includes in full, and which was written in response to
a request for an account of Buddhist life in Hangzhou. Birnbaum
is at pains to show how complex a character Hongyi was and builds
a convincing analysis of the autographical account showing how it
indicates the changes the monk had undergone in his Buddhist training.
Unlike others, Hongyi did not make claims about his spiritual experiences
but instead, by discussing the gentle and self-effacing actions
of others, he displayed his perception of both his own faults and
in the Practice and Defence of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism,"
Charles Jones addresses the ways in which Chinese Pure Land Buddhism,
exemplified in Taiwan, has engaged with some of the characteristic
features of modernity or modernism. Jones outlines three contrasting
approaches to Pure Land thought. The first is the traditional "popular"
approach, which concentrates on salvation at death. The second is
an approach supported by the second chapter of the Vimalakirti-nirdesa
sutra, which is therefore just as traditional although
it is not as popular. This argues that any land is pure from the
viewpoint of an enlightened observer. And third, Jones addresses
a more "socially engaged" perspective embedded in action
to make the world a Pure Land by addressing inequality wherever
it is found. Jones gives examples of Pure Land thinkers, both lay
and clerical, who hold these three positions, principally the conservative
Taixu (1911-1949) and the modern masters Lin Qiuwu (1903-1934) and
Yinshun (1906-). He also summarizes the Western analysis of modernity/modernism
in sections that are clear and useful, containing succinct phrases
excellent for mining for undergraduate essay titles!
It is one of the
strengths of this volume that it draws on varied disciplinary perspectives.
It brings together analysis of Buddhism and modernity not just in
contrasting locations but also through contrasting analytical styles.
Inevitably, therefore and depending on the reader's own methodological
background and familiarity with contrasting parts of the Buddhist
world some chapters will present more of a challenge than
others. Bongkil Chung's "Won Buddhism: The Historical Context
of Sot'aesan's Reformation of Buddhism for the Modern World"
was my challenge! This is a rich account of the intellectual and
philosophical lineage of Won Buddhism and of the characters who
represent these connections. Won Buddhism, is one of three Korean
indigenous religions that developed in the twentieth century. Chung
shows how, though distinctive, the three religions are interconnected,
developing as they did at a time when Korea was emerging from pro-Confucian
persecution of Buddhism in the five centuries of the Chosen dynasty
(1392-1910). Through careful analysis, Chung explains how Won Buddhism
represents a synthesis of Confucian ethical tenets and the metaphysical
teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. Like Jones' modernist example of
Taiwanese Pure Land Buddhism, the resulting teachings are concerned
with ways to live in this world rather than with preparation for
a future existence. This is not a straightforward read and the essay
is not amenable to summary, being packed with points of comparison
and contrast. The latter vary between the pragmatic transformation
of resentment into gratitude and an exposition of the Won understanding
of Irwonsang (unitary circular form).
Heine considers the authenticity of the Shushogi, which
was compiled in the 1880s, as a distillation of the thought of Dogen.
In "Abbreviation or Aberration: The Role of the Shushogi
in Modern Soto Zen Buddhism," he compares the 75, 95, and 12
fascicle versions of the thirteenth century Shobogenzo
with the much later popular text. The Shushogi "is
a condensed scripture preaching the doctrine of confession as a
vehicle to salvation" (p. 176) which is used extensively in
Japanese funerary rites but also in other aspects of contemporary
Soto Zen practice by both lay and monastic adherents. As we might
expect, Heine cannot conclude that the Shushogi is either
simply an abbreviation or necessarily an aberration. In the process
of considering whether it may be one or the other, he emphasises
the complex relationship that exists between teacher and text, and
its appropriators and critics, such that "Dogen and Dogen Zen
are entangled in an ongoing process of creative misunderstanding
and creative hermeneutics" (p. 187). Here, as in many of the
essays in this collection, Heine's analysis includes consideration
of factions within traditional Buddhism that are concerned with
In "By Imperial
Edict and Shogunal Decree," Jacqueline Stone provides a welcome
and lucid account of two modern reinterpretations of one of Nichiren's
three great secret laws, the kaiden (ordination platform).
Stone traces varied interpretations of Nichiren's writings on this
somewhat elusive concept and, in particular, the ways in which it
has been elucidated by Chigaku Tanaka and recent and contemporary
leaders of the Soka Gakkai. The essay is a perfect example of how,
in order to find contemporary relevance for orthodox but periodically
marginalized teachings, religious leaders must have the skills to
read a number of complex and conflicting variables including the
political climate. It thus has relevance beyond its immediate subject
Daniel Cozort 's
essay, "The Making of the Western Lama," argues that in
order to satisfy the demand for teachers of Tibetan Buddhism among
Westerners, it is increasingly necessary for Westerners to be trained
to teach. This is because there are insufficient teachers of Tibetan
origin, trained according to traditional Tibetan methods, to satisfy
demand. Fortunately, the chapter does not stand or fall on the accuracy
of Cozort's opening assertion concerning Tibetan Buddhism: "it
has become clear that there is only one major barrier to its further
expansion: the emergence of a cadre of Western-born teachers."
Regardless of the truth or otherwise of that contentious statement,
in order to illustrate the issue Cozort focuses on the traditionally
scholastic Gelugpa. The chapter begins with an account of the Gelugpa
geshe training program which it contrasts with two schemes aimed
at Western converts and run by the Foundation for the Preservation
of the Mahayana Tradition and the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), respectively.
Cozort contrasts the schemes in terms of their textual content and
the demands made on participants. This was a thoroughly worthwhile
exercise. Part of his argument concerns the narrow curriculum of
the NKT. He discusses this with exclusive reference to NKT internal
sources that describe the movement as "an association of independent
centres with a weak center" (p. 240). However, fieldwork based
accounts of the NKT produced over the last decade consistently find
that, regardless of the movement's rhetoric, it is highly controlled,
at least in the UK where the majority of its centres can be found.
The essay would therefore have been more rounded with reference
to academic analysis published in the UK, especially the work of
Tara Doyle's chapter,
"Liberate the Mahabodhi Temple!," both describes and analyzes
tensions in Bodh Gaya where Ambedkarites have since 1992 been protesting
Hindu control of the Mahabodhi temple. Doyle places this dispute
within the context of recent Indian politics and socially engaged
Buddhism. The Dalit campaign is led by Surai Sasai, Japanese by
birth but now an Indian national, who is willing to pursue a militant
style of Buddhism that, Doyle argues, comes from his Nichiren background.
The political context for the dispute is one in which groups organized
on caste and religious lines are normally in tension. Doyle draws
comparisons between the Bodh Gaya dispute and the nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party campaign to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya but also
shows that the self-styled Mahabodhi Liberation Committee is influenced
by the example of Gandhi. She shows that while there are significant
similarities between the Mahabodhi campaign and actions at Ayodhya,
there are also important difficulties between the two, the main
one being that in the Buddhist case, "the potential for massive
political communal upheaval was and is simply not there" (p.
266). Neither is support from foreign Buddhists who visit Bodh Gaya
in large numbers but who are reluctant to be drawn into the argument.
The chapter gives details of the dispute and makes connections between
Surai Sasai and the Indian teachers who he sees as being in his
own lineage, including, Ambedkar and Anagarika Dhammapala. The strengths
of this chapter are to be found first in the information about this
dispute which is both well informed and clearly articulated and
second in the useful challenges and additions it makes to recent
theorizing about socially engaged Buddhism.
to the volume makes a number of claims to uniqueness which are perhaps
not fully justified (given the recent prolific output of one of
its editors, among others), but it is unique in its breadth of coverage
and it is this that makes the volume so valuable and definitely
one for the library shelf.