Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
One non-Buddhist writer (I can’t remember who) described the Buddha as “a pre-modern post-modernist.” Buddha’s method of inquiry was one of relentless deconstruction. His teachings deconstruct experience, physical and mental phenomena, religious doctrine, philosophical propositions, making the Buddha a consummate post-modernist. One of the key features of post-modernism is the assertion that there is no grand narrative that is the authoritative interpretation of any topic of analysis. Buddhism is empty precisely because it contains no grand narrative other than the impermanence of all phenomena, viewing all phenomena as interdependent process dependent on conditions. There is no grand narrative except for the process of deconstruction. And all deconstructive processes proceed to the point where they deconstruct themselves, thus ending even the deconstruction. This is a post-modern interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings.
One debate over post-modernism is whether it represents a distinct era, as that which comes after modernism, or is it a continuation of the modernization process. Sociologist Anthony Giddens argues in The Consequences of Modernity (1990) that post-modernism is a form of hyper-modernism, the modernization process pushed to its maximum limits. Likewise post-Buddhism is an outgrowth of modern Buddhism, developed under conditions of modernity.
Buddhism arrived in the West at mid-20th century, at a confluence of modern processes: economic and cultural globalization and technological revolution. Buddhism became popular in the West in the 60s and 70s, during a period of rapid globalization in communications, with accelerating growth via the internet at the turn of the millennium. So-called “Western Buddhism” is simultaneously a westernized, modernized, and globalized Buddhism. It is also decidedly post-modern, because it arrives in each locale as polyvalent forms that mix and influence each other.
Prior to its diffusion in the West, Asian Buddhisms were relatively isolated by language, culture and geographic distance. There was an initial transmission from one culture to another, followed by long periods of cultural isolation that allowed dharma and practice to evolve into distinct forms. Those distinct forms began to cross and influence each other in the late Victorian period and early 20th century under the homogenizing effect of Western imperialism in Asia. Buddhist modernism developed in response to Western contact, but also in response to Asian nationalist and socialist movements. Another Buddhist writer comments that if you are practicing a form of Buddhism that is post-western contact, and post-socialist regime, you are necessarily practicing a modernist form of Buddhism.
I would argue, as well, that you are also practicing a post-modernist form, whether you see it that way or not. Most western Buddhists, even those that follow a singular teacher within a single sangha, have been actively seeking out and influenced by multiple forms of Buddhist teaching and practice, in a way that earlier Asian Buddhists could not have been.
At mid-century, pioneering Western practitioners travelled to Asia to obtain Buddhist teachings that could not be found in the West, and singular Buddhist teachers came to the West to teach. One had to study and train with a singular Buddhist teacher and lineage. There was no other way to apprehend the teachings as most Buddhist texts were not translated into western languages. Books written by westerners on Buddhism were few, and filled with cultural biases and misconceptions.
By the 70s, however, all three forms that have come to represent the major corpus of western Buddhism—Theravada, Tibetan and Zen—had been established in Europe and North America. Asian texts were translated into English, and Western students of Asian teachers began teaching and writing their own books.
Since the turn of the millennium, and with the simultaneous explosion of the internet, Buddhism is now ubiquitous in the West and around the globe. Multiple lineages, offered by hundreds of Asian and Western teachers, are offered side by side, in multiple media forms: books, podcasts, websites, youtube videos, DVDs, magazines and ebooks. There has been an explosion of Buddhist publishing, and a circuit of western teachers and writers. The cheap, often free circulation of Buddhist teachings on the web means that contemporary Buddhistm—western, modern and global—offers a plethora of teachings from every conceivable lineage, traditional and contemporary. Furthermore, the intermediated form of the dharma today allows dharma teachings to be mixed with a variety of contemporary subjects, including psychology, neuroscience, social science, physical science and cosmology, philosophy, art, business and politics. This is why Buddhism of the 21st century is not only western, global and modern, it is also post-modern.
This polyvalent ubiquity creates the one essential prerequisite for the post-modern condition: there is no singular grand narrative of Buddhism that dominates a particular culture or group. In the early first millennium when Buddhism evolved and spread around Asia, each school of Buddhism promoted itself as the supreme soteriological method, the most authentic, effective or fastest route to Buddhahood. Each lineage, ensconced within its host culture, was able to present itself as a grand narrative, as the ultimate path to awakening. Many Mahayana sutras contain the proposition that this sutra is the most superlative sutra, the sutra that ensures the practitioner’s path to Buddhahood. Tantric traditions proclaim that a certain tantric practice is the fastest route to Buddhahood. All of this sounds like certain lineages claim to possess a grand narrative about the right path to awakening. Likewise, many modern practitioners may claim to follow only one teacher, and may be loyal to one practice community. Yet they have at their disposal a panoply of lineages, teachings and practices, and have been simultaneously influenced by teachers from many different lineages and traditions. Modern practitioners are in effect creating their own blend of teachings and practices, choosing those that feel most relevant to their lives. For the [post]modern practitioner, there is no grand narrative about the most effective lineage or practice, except that which they construct for themselves.
David Drewes wrote a summary of the scholarship to date on the Mahayana sutras for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to South and Southeast Asian Buddhism. It’s a brilliant piece of scholarship, but what it says to me, from a bird’s eye view, is that there is no singular narrative of what the Mahayana sutras mean, who wrote them or why, or how they fit into the development of Buddhism in India and Asia. Drewes writes the history of the scholarship of the sutras, and shows that there are several competing narratives on each of these historical issues. Scholars have had multiple perspectives on what the sutras say about the career of the Boddhisatva, the nature of Mahayana enlightenment, the nature and divinity of the Buddha, the liturgical role of the sutras, the practice of meditation, Buddhism as a religion, and so on. What Drewes’ paper shows is that there is no grand narrative to be found either within the text of the Mahayana sutras, or about them.
What the Mahayana sutras say to me is that there is no grand narrative within Buddhism itself. I interpret the Heart Sutra as deconstructing the Abhidharma. I read it as saying that the Pali teachings on the five skandhas are empty, as are the teachings on suffering, birth and death, on means of attainment, and all the other teachings in the early Buddhist tradition. In other words, take away all the doctrinal teachings of the Pali canon, and what’s left? The practitioner is fully awakened not by doctrine or tradition, but by prajnaparamita, by wisdom alone. The Heart Sutra can be interpreted to say that there is no grand narrative, not even in the earliest teachings of the Pali canon.
I have also been studying the sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, translated by Lex Hixon. Highlights from the verses say that there is no Bodhisattva, no sentient beings to save, no Buddha, no Buddha-nature, and so on. What does this mean? I interpret this to say just what the Heart Sutra said about the Pali canon: that even the teachings of the Mahayana are empty. In other words, the Mahayana sutra deconstructs itself. There is no sutra, no doctrine, no practice that can or should be viewed as the right or best teaching or method. There is only the stark emptiness of the practitioner’s own experience that is hence open enough to include the presence of universal truth. Thus, even in the Mahayana sutras, there is no grand narrative; there is only the practitioner’s interdependent experience.
Post-Buddhism stands for the radical notion that I as the practitioner am the sole authority for interpreting the Buddhist teachings and applying them in my life. Since there is no grand narrative in Buddhism that anyone can lay claim to, I have the right and the authority to decide what those teachings and practices mean to me. I am responsible for my own awakening, and thus I am responsible for interpreting the teachings in a way that I deem relevant to my path. Lamas and senior teachers may claim to have the authority of lineage to explicate the “true meaning” of the teachings, but they do not have any more authority than any other scholar or reader, or the average practitioner. I will not defer to the authority of any esteemed teacher of any lineage to tell me how to practice the dharma or what they mean to me. I may learn from many different teachers, and I may study many different dharmic traditions, but ultimately, I decide what those teachings and practices mean in my life.