Buddhism in the Modern World:
Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition

Steven Heine + Charles S. Prebish (editors)

Oxford University Press 2003
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 https://dannyreviews.com/
The essays in Buddhism in the Modern World span a broad gamut, looking at sacred objects and places, life rules and doctrines, conversion, individual agency, texts and their interpretations, training and accreditation, and political engagement, in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, China, Japan, Korea, and the United States and the West more generally. This makes for an eclectic collection, but one which gives a feel for the diversity of modern Buddhism and its adaptations.

Donald K. Swearer describes the role of Buddha images and amulets in the Buddhist tradition and specifically in Thailand, before considering three high profile Thai proponents of an aniconic stance. "[T]he iconic/aniconic argument has a long history... Buddhists educated in Western patterns of thought in general and 'protestant' Buddhism in particular, have used the notions of Buddhism derived from their education and training to attack the cult."

Nathan Katz explores the place of the Dambulla cave temples in Sinhalese Buddhism, going back to king Kirti Sri in the 18th century. Perhaps in an attempt to justify this as "modern", he claims that an "overall tactic of responding to an external threat by reclaiming and refashioning the symbols, rituals, and polity of a classical period" is "a typically modern religious response", though that seems to describe much religious change in any era.

In "Varying the Vinaya" Charles S. Prebish looks at definitions of the sangha (the community of monks) and surveys the rules by which it is governed as they appear in the vinaya literature, canonical, paracanonical and noncanonical. He then considers the challenges faced in the application of those rules in Buddhist monasteries in America.

The longest essay in the volume is Raoul Birnbaum's study of a prominent Chinese intellectual and artist, Li Shutong, who in 1918 became a Buddhist monk, Master Hongyi. This includes the whole of Hongyi's autobiographical essay "My Experiences in 'Leaving Home' at West Lake" and sets that in the context of his engagement with modernity both before and after his conversion.

Charles B. Jones surveys reform movements in Chinese and Taiwanese Pure Land Buddhism, which have opposed traditionalists like Yinguang and moved away from a focus on death and salvation or on gods and saviours. He covers Taixu and "Buddhism for Human Life", Lin Qiuwu, Yinshun and The Buddha is in the Human Realm and A New Treatise on the Pure Land, and modern progressive Pure Land, with its feminist, environmentalist and social concerns.

Bongkil Chung begins his history of Won Buddhism with its background in the suppression of Buddhism by the Confucian state and earlier revivals in Ch'oe Che-h's Tonghak or Eastern Learning and Kang Il-sun's Chungsan'gyo. In 1924 Pak Chung-bin or Sot'aesan set up the Society for the Study of Buddhist Dharma (renamed Won Buddhism after his death) and his teachings reworked Buddhism for the modern world, emphasising "the deliverance of sentient beings" and "curing the world of moral illness". Chung also explicates "the most salient feature of Won Buddhism", the tenet of Irwonsang or "unitary circular form".

The Shushogi was a "summary" of Dogen's Shobogenzo created at the end of the 19th century, in response to Christianity and changes in Buddhism's relationship with the state; it downplayed zazen or meditation in order to appeal/apply to a broader lay audience. In "Abbreviation or Abberation", Steven Heine explores the structure and text of the Shushogi, in the context of different versions of the Shobogenzo and different understandings of Dogen's ideas.

The founder of Nichiren Buddhism predicted a "great ordination platform" or kaidan that would be installed "by imperial edict and shogunal decree". This is now mostly taken as symbolic, but Jacqueline I. Stone considers two traditions in which it played a key role in political involvement: Tanaka Chikagu's religious nationalism and the post-war Soka Gakkai, whose evangelical activity controversially spilled over into electoral politics and the building of the Sho Hondo sanctuary.

Daniel Cozort explores the training of Western teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, looking at the syllabus and structure of courses offered by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, founded by Lama Thubten Yeshe, and the New Kadampa Tradition, founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. These are both greatly reduced versions of the Geshe degree of Sera Je monastery, near Lhasa, which requires twenty to twenty five years of study and debate.

Finally, Tara N. Doyle considers a Dalit Buddhist campaign to achieve full Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar, locating this at the militant end of a broader Engaged Buddhism. Key influences include the nationalised Japanese Surai Sasai, influenced by Nichiren Buddhism, the late 19th century reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, who had also led campaigns about the Mahabodhi Temple, and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the founder of Dalit Buddhism. The Mahabodhi campaign was modelled on the Hindu campaigns over Ayodhya, but was on a much smaller scale and remained non-violent.

Apart from an index, Buddhism in the Modern World is not really integrated as a book. The theme is broad and there is no attempt to impose any kind of theoretical or conceptual framework on top of that. So specialists will approach the essays individually. For the lay reader, however, the collection makes a nice introduction to the diversity of Buddhism and of academic approaches to its study.

June 2011

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%T Buddhism in the Modern World
%S Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition
%E Heine, Steven
%E Prebish, Charles S.
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2003
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0195146980
%P 287pp