Journal of Global Buddhism 2023, Vol.24 (1)

Buddhism and Modernity: 4th International Vajrayāna Conference

An Analytical Conference Report

Dendup Chophel ORCID logo

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

Jigme Phuntsho ORCID logo

Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies


This article provides an analytical report on the fourth International Vajrayāna Conference themed ‘Buddhism and Modernity’, which was organised by the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies in collaboration with Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body.

Buddhism has its provenance in the radically changing socio-political environment of the historical Buddha, and, since then, it has been confronted with great changes. It has both been influenced by these changes and been the impetus of change. One of the reasons why Buddhism has endured and flourished is its adaptability to diverse socio-cultural, linguistic, and political systems and milieus (see Staal 1986 on Buddhist fluidity in Theravada traditions; see Mayer 2014 on innovation and adaptability in the Tibetan tradition). The current era of modernity has been characterized by increasing technological uptake and innovation on the one hand, and the spread of neoliberal socio-economic order on the other.

The often disorienting pace and nature of changes have produced varied responses, from outright rejection of religion and tradition to their reappropriation, reinterpretation and reformulation (Shinohara 1981). More commonly, the institution and practices of modernity which Latour (1993) called ‘constitution,’ are characterized by hybridity that invariably do not respect conceptual apparatus. Confronted with modern expediencies, it has adopted and incorporated modern scientific outlook and semantics, the most famous of which has been called ‘Buddhist modernism’ or ‘Protestant Buddhism’ in the Sri Lankan context, where Buddhist reformers promoted puritan adherence to doctrine and education, with a focus on ‘this-worldly ascetism’ and a code of ethics for lay people, while trying to undermine ritualism and superstition (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988). However, in other instances, Buddhist figures have not only refurbished and reinvigorated ancient and innovative ritual traditions to suit distinctly modern and urbanized needs and aspirations (see Yu 2020 on the preponderance of Tibetan Buddhist ritualized activities in contemporary China), but also created entirely new forms of Buddhist devotional practices (see Chia 2020 on ‘Buddhist rock’ bands in Indonesia).