Westernized, Globalized Buddhism as Experimental Buddhism

Tricycle is running an article by John Nelson on “Experimental Buddhism“. I was very intrigued by the title, but a bit disappointed with the execution. It’s written in overly-fussy academic language that never relaxes for a second. But it’s a theme that mirrors Jay Garfield’s article on “Buddhism in the West” The two articles could be read together as a more complete understanding of contemporary Buddhism as simultaneously globalized and westernized, and shaped by individuals as much as groups.

John Nelson, “Experimental Buddhism

There is an impressive range of options from which to choose a spiritual or religious path, and an individual’s first encounter with the variety of Buddhist traditions can be daunting. Before an individual “becomes” Zen, Vajrayana, Pure Land, or any of the other schools now accessible globally through actual and virtual sites, most newcomers to Buddhism as well as many born into a Buddhist tradition, inhabit a loose category of what I call “experimental Buddhists.” The adjective “experimental” calls particular attention to the ways Buddhist traditions are negotiated by a variety of persons, then implemented selectively and pragmatically over time. Through trial and error, relevant concepts or methods are sought, examined, and then applied to any number of agendas, some psychological and spiritual, others social and political. This isn’t an idealized Buddhism of the monastery or popular culture, but one fully engaged with contemporary sensibilities and situations.

John Nelson is Professor of East Asian Religions and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Jay Garfield’s article on info-buddhism.com, “Buddhism in the West” is a fascinating account of the history of transmissions of Buddhism from India to Tibet, from India to China, and finally, from all Asian countries where Buddhism is practiced to the West. Furthermore, he explains how the transmission has gone both ways: from the West to Asia, with western knowledge traditions influencing Asian Buddhism. Some of the most distinctive social influences of the West on Asian Buddhism are feminism and ecology, and the practice of social justice, leading to the development of engaged Buddhism. Other western influences are the collusion of Buddhism with western science, including quantum physics and neurobiology.

Nelson’s article offers five characteristics of “experimental Buddhism. The fourth is the most interesting to me:

A fourth attribute of experimental Buddhism is its rational and keen observance of practice grounded in everyday life. From an initial hypothesis about the utility of an idea or method to the testing we perform as the results become apparent, an experimental Buddhism returns us not to the meditation hall but to the messy conditions of contemporary social orders. While that may sound cliché, there’s one important plot twist: Those hoping to make Buddhist teachings or practices transform their lives know that a subjective judgment about their progress, even when it comes from a venerated teacher, is not enough. Society, and not the temple or monastery, is becoming the ultimate testing ground and arbiter for what constitutes the viability and effectiveness of a Buddhist practice that “works.”

“Messy conditions of contemporary social orders” opens up the whole realm of experimentation. I found that practitioners in some traditional sanghas would prefer to keep everything in the sceptic, hermetically sealed environment of the shrine room. My hunch is that when you take that kind of “relic museum” Buddhism into the street, the cognitive dissonance is too great, so people run back to the meditation hall as the only place where it makes sense. Personally, I prefer to practice my Buddhism in the street, right smack in the middle of the “messy conditions of contemporary social orders”; that’s where it gets really interesting for me. The messiness of the street demands a different kind of Buddhism, spoken and performed in a different cadence that speaks to the street.


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