Roots of Today's Buddhism
By PETER STEINFELS
Even though the historic Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama,
is said to have lived approximately 2,500 years ago, Buddhism
is often viewed as the most modern of world religions.
Nontheistic, nondogmatic, nonviolent, emphasizing individual
practice rather than institutional membership or obligations,
the Buddhism expounded by, say, the Dalai Lama fits nicely with
a modern, largely Western world view based on science and respect
for the individual. Maybe that explains why it seems to attract
so many physicists and psychotherapists.
Is this modernity surprising? Not really, because this Buddhism
is itself a modern creation, a late-19th-century development
deeply influenced by Western ideas even while emerging as a
counterweight to Western colonial domination.
That, at any rate, is the intriguing point made by Donald S.
Lopez Jr., a leading scholar of Buddhism, in his introduction
Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West,"
just published by Beacon Press and excerpted in the fall issue
of the Buddhist review Tricycle.
Professor Lopez, who teaches Buddhist and Tibetan studies at
the University of Michigan, describes how a handful of cosmopolitan
Buddhist intellectuals from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Thailand,
Burma (now Myanmar), China and Japan created this modern Buddhism.
They were aided, curiously enough, by an American, Col. Henry
In 1875, Olcott co-founded, with Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical
Society for the study and propagation of an esoteric religious
knowledge drawing on spiritualism, Eastern religions and 19th-century
science. Five years later, Olcott and Blavatsky went to Ceylon
where he embraced Buddhism and was soon founding a Young Men's
Buddhist Association, publishing the first "Buddhist Catechism,"
trying to unite all the different forms of Asian Buddhism around
a common denominator of beliefs and encouraging the leaders
and intellectuals who would reshape Buddhism for their time.
Naturally, this new Buddhism presented itself as a return to
the authentic teachings of the Buddha. The Buddhism of the Buddha's
experience of enlightenment was seen, Professor Lopez writes,
as "most compatible with the ideals of the European Enlightenment,
ideals such as reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism,
tolerance, freedom, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy,
precisely those notions that have appealed so much to Western
In effect, this modern Buddhism distanced itself from the actual
Buddhism surrounding it. It rejected many ritual elements, Professor
Lopez writes, implicitly conceding the charges of Western officials
and missionaries that Buddhist populations were ridden by superstition
and burdened by exploitative monastic establishments: "The
time was ripe to remove the encrustations of the past centuries
and return to the essence of Buddhism."
That essence was to be found in Buddhist texts and philosophy,
not in the daily round of "monks who chanted sutras, performed
rituals for the dead and maintained monastic properties."
The pervasive Buddhist practice of venerating images and relics
of the Buddha, which Christian missionaries had considered idolatry,
was de-emphasized. Traditional lines dividing monks and lay
people were blurred. Important roles were restored to women.
The fundamental Buddhist concern to bring an end to suffering
now encompassed support for social justice, economic modernization
and freedom from colonialism.
Central to modern Buddhism was meditation, an emphasis, Professor
Lopez says, that "marked one of the most extreme departures
of modern Buddhism from previous forms," which had made
meditation only one of many spiritual activities and not necessarily
the highest, even within monastic institutions.
Meditation now became a practice recommended for everyone, and
also "allowed modern Buddhism generally to dismiss the
rituals of consecration, purification, expiation and exorcism
so common throughout Asia as extraneous elements that had crept
into the tradition," he writes.
The emergence of modern Buddhism, as Professor Lopez describes
it, played out a little differently in each Buddhist land. It
did not touch Tibetan Buddhism, for example, until the Dalai
Lama left Tibet and interacted with a Western audience.
Professor Lopez also notes that this idea of periodically reforming
Buddhism from inevitable decline by returning to its roots was
found within the tradition itself. But a Westerner reading this
history cannot help but think of another religious response
to modernization, the Protestant Reformation, with its claim
to restore a pure primitive Christianity, its emphasis on equality
rather than hierarchy and its rejection of sacrament and ritual
in favor of individual piety and introspection.
Protestant as well as Enlightenment ideals were of course very
much part of the Western modernity that these Asian Buddhist
thinkers were coming to terms with. After all, the British arrived
in India, where Buddhism had begun and once flourished, centuries
after it had died out there. So they found "Buddhist texts,
artifacts and stupas," Professor Lopez said in a phone
conversation, "but no Buddhists."
Thus Buddhism, he said, was a screen on which Europeans could
project many of their own notions: the British in India, for
example, sometimes calling the Buddha the "Luther of India"
because he had supposedly challenged the Vedic priesthood and
its rituals just as Luther had the Catholic priesthood and its
Not only did British ideas of Buddhism reflect Victorian anti-Catholicism,
he said; sometimes they carried a whiff of anti-Semitism, too:
Buddhism could be admired because, unlike Judaism, Christianity
and Islam, it had no Semitic origins.
Professor Lopez, it should be emphasized, is not questioning
the authenticity of this modern Buddhism; he wants to give its
creators, who have often been dismissed by scholars, their due.
Of course, his account does give the lie to the idea that the
Buddhism the West, and even some of the East, now knows is the
one true Buddhism, rather than one of the many Buddhisms that
have evolved as an ancient teaching has interacted over two
millennia with different cultures.
But that idea should be disturbing only to those who believe
that great religious traditions can remain immutable and untouched