Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby David N. Snyder » Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:35 pm

As an off-shoot of the Asian Buddhism thread, here we can discuss any challenges to Buddhism in the modern world and here Buddhism can mean in the "West" or in Asia.

Wander forth, O bhikkhus, for the welfare of the multitude, for the happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans. Let not two go the same way. Teach, O bhikkhus, the Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end, with the right meaning and phrasing.” Samyutta Nikaya 4.453

In the modern world there seems to be two schools of thought: some who say let people come to the Dhamma on their own, when the time is right and another camp that would like to help others come to the Path of the Dhamma in ways that might be seen as missionary. I am of the latter and feel that this can be done in the spirit of the teachings, in a gentle and compassionate way. For example, offering 'Introduction to Buddhist meditation' workshops at Dhamma centers and temples and placing fliers and advertising such events.

Hedonism seems to be the religion of the modern world and there is not much Buddhism can offer those who are attracted to hedonism. But another 'religion' of the modern world is science and scientific method. In my opinion, this is an area where Buddhism can really shine and attract those inclined to science. Buddhism is at least compatible to the sciences and scientific method (in at least the use of empiricism, observation, and analysis). Astronomy, biological evolution, and others are at least compatible with the teachings of Buddhism.

The arts are another area that remains popular from ancient times through modern times. The Mahayana has probably had better luck with the use of the arts as a Skilful means for expressing the Dhamma and perhaps this is an area where Buddhism or Buddhists could focus some efforts on.

Well, this is an opening post, but it looks more like some possible 'solutions.' Feel free to offer more possible solutions, thoughts, or challenges Buddhism faces in modern times.
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby retrofuturist » Sun Mar 22, 2009 7:41 am

Greetings TheDhamma,

TheDhamma wrote:Well, this is an opening post, but it looks more like some possible 'solutions.'


A challenge I see is that once people are introduced to the Dhamma on account of its compatibility with science, they may come to expect that everything that happens within the scope of Buddhism adheres to compatibility with modern science. This then opens up the can of worms about what is pure superstition, what is culturally driven, what is a deviation of the Buddha's teachings, and so on. Accordingly, I think there is a real need for skilled Dhamma teachers and Dhamma authors that can help to guide people through these questions and lead them to the heart of the Dhamma without forsaking Buddhism's traditions and without forsaking anything essential to the Dhamma. Alas, it's difficult for teachers of any tradition to do this wholeheartedly because to some extent they will have to break ranks with the mainstream of their tradition.

Metta,
Retro. :)
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Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby christopher::: » Sun Mar 22, 2009 9:12 am

Concerning science, there are a number of teachers who have pointed to commonalities between the Dhamma and what scientists have been learning about the fundamental principles of ecology and natural systems. Ajahn Chah had talked about this at times-- that the laws of Dhamma can be found operating in Nature. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about principles of interbeing, that the Buddha's teaching of anatta can be understood by watching Nature's compounded structures closely and observing how all that exists inter-connects.

Former US vice-president Al Gore hasn't mentioned Buddhism much, but he's been helping to get these new understandings out into the mainstream, by teaching about the complex interdependent factors leading to global warming. Systems science and ecology are "new sciences" in some ways, but the roots of these understandings are deep. You can find many tribal cultures, such as Native Americans and Australian aborigines, who talked of similar principles. There is mention also of such natural processes in Taoism, which is very much focused on Nature.

The systems view of life is something that is very important, now, as the world faces great challenges. To understand how nature works, how the human mind works, this is a much needed wisdom that Buddhism as well as other world traditions have to offer.
Like the Buddha as King Mahajanaka, we.. should look around us and be observant because everything in the world is ready to teach us. With even a little intuitive wisdom, we will then be able to see clearly through the ways of the world. We will come to understand that everything in the world is a teacher. Trees and vines, for example, can all reveal the true nature of reality. With wisdom there is no need to question anyone, no need to study. We can learn from nature enough to be enlightened, as in the story of King Mahajanaka, because everything follows the way of truth. It does not diverge from truth.

~Ajahn Chah
Dhamma Nature


:group:

Some related links...

Ecodharma.com: Systems Theory

Buddhism and Ecology

The Buddhist Conception of an Ecological Self

Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds

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"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Mar 23, 2009 6:10 am

Retro makes a good point about people being "sold" Buddhism as being "scientific", "having no beliefs", and, in particular "you don't need to worry about this talk of other lives and so on".

The potential problem with this approach is that it can lead to a view that "Buddhism is about living this life as well as possible". Of course, that, in itself, is not a bad idea, since developing generosity, selflessness (in the mundane sense), and compassion are important aspects of the path.

However, my impression from observing some western "insight meditators" (in person and via recordings and books) is that they have marginalised the idea that the Dhamma is about liberation from Samsara.

Metta
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby pink_trike » Mon Mar 23, 2009 7:56 am

mikenz66 wrote:Retro makes a good point about people being "sold" Buddhism as being "scientific", "having no beliefs", and, in particular "you don't need to worry about this talk of other lives and so on".

The potential problem with this approach is that it can lead to a view that "Buddhism is about living this life as well as possible". Of course, that, in itself, is not a bad idea, since developing generosity, selflessness (in the mundane sense), and compassion are important aspects of the path.

However, my impression from observing some western "insight meditators" (in person and via recordings and books) is that they have marginalised the idea that the Dhamma is about liberation from Samsara.

Metta
Mike


Hi Mike,

What western insight teachers are "selling" is a burning house. Here in the U.S. that burning house is selling like hotcakes. Perhaps we should all exercise a a bit of patience and take a "wait and see" here? My goodness, Buddhism has hardly even gotten off the boat in the West. The U.S. is an aggressive, barbarian, materialist nation at the cellular level with a pathological fear of death and uncertainty, and a monstrous deficiency of kindness. Rebirth is regarded in the same way as :alien: . There are much more immediate issues to deal with here. I think a little trust for these teachers (many who have traditional training backgrounds) is in order. We think we know better? :anjali:
Last edited by pink_trike on Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:06 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby tiltbillings » Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:00 am

However, my impression from observing some western "insight meditators" (in person and via recordings and books) is that they have marginalised the idea that the Dhamma is about liberation from Samsara.


Some, but hardly all.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.
"We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." -- Jack Johnson
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby mikenz66 » Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:27 am

tiltbillings wrote:Some, but hardly all.

Yes, that's why I said "some". :tongue:

pink_trike, I agree that one should not complain about people getting some exposure to Dhamma. However, teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, seem to teach in an accessible way that doesn't appear to compromise the message.

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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby Fede » Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:38 am

Yes, but when you think about how people like Timothy Leary took classic, traditional sacred Tibetan writings and distorted them to suit his own bizarre ideologies, it is a little bit scary to think about how influential - and gullible - some sectors are.....
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

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Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby christopher::: » Mon Mar 23, 2009 8:46 am

Fede wrote:Yes, but when you think about how people like Timothy Leary took classic, traditional sacred Tibetan writings and distorted them to suit his own bizarre ideologies, it is a little bit scary to think about how influential - and gullible - some sectors are.....


But that was so long ago, when interest was just dawning, no, Fede?

I am amazed sometimes, thinking about the ease in which we have access to good teachers and teachings *now*- thanks to modern technology and the efforts of so many. Think about what was available, in English, just 50 years ago! It's of course optimal if one can have first person access to a good teacher, but if you don't then its a matter of being wise enough to listen to more advanced practitioners, who can point one toward the resources out there now.

I'm thrilled to have stumbled on the wealth of free audios Joseph Goldstein has made available. I realize now, listening to him, that he's more for intermediate level practitioners then beginners. I'm thankful for all I learned from countless discussions with others (over at E-sangha) without which my knowledge of the dhamma would not have deepened.

But some people, like myself, just are not drawn to the ancient suttras. I can't explain why exactly. I'd rather read dhamma talks by Ajahn Chah, or listen to Goldstein. I'm the same with music, I like classical music but would rather listen to jazz. As for Shakespeare, I just can't get into him...

Modern dhamma doesn't mean lite dhamma, necessarily, but one needs more advanced practitioners to point you in the right direction, to make sure one isn't throwing out the Buddha with the bath water...

:group:
"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby pink_trike » Mon Mar 23, 2009 10:40 am

christopher::: wrote: I realize now, listening to him, that he's more for intermediate level practitioners then beginners. I'm thankful for all I learned from countless discussions with others (over at E-sangha) without which my knowledge of the dhamma would not have deepened.

Modern dhamma doesn't mean lite dhamma, necessarily, but one needs more advanced practitioners to point you in the right direction, to make sure one isn't throwing out the Buddha with the bath water...


I'm not sure I'd call it intermediate, but he doesn't teach just beginner level now. Joseph was clearly teaching beginner level 25 years ago...where else to start? Now he's teaching deeper, because he has students that are receptive to it and capable.
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Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby pink_trike » Mon Mar 23, 2009 11:26 am

mikenz66 wrote:
tiltbillings wrote:However, teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, seem to teach in an accessible way that doesn't appear to compromise the message.

Agreed.

Some thoughts:

Western teachers still don't have a lot of role models for "Western Buddhist Teacher". There has needed to be a whole lot of invention and adaptation in order to reach Western students. When I travel to Europe I take a power adapter so that euro energy will power my devices. I see Western teachers as still being like power adapters that converts EBE (Eastern Buddhist Energy) so that it flows into Western bio-ports. The adapter's settings have to be correct or the bio-port's brain gets fried, but yet different enough so that the bio-port receives a flow of energy and powers up.

One of my Western Theravadan teachers has been teaching for 30 years. He's been training in Myanmar and Cambodia for longer than that with just 2 teachers. He does 1 or 2 three month retreats in Myanmar every year...to say he is traditionally trained is an understatement. He doesn't write books. He doesn't tour. He doesn't hold "events". You won't find him on Facebook. He doesn't have a web site or do podcasts. He doesn't look or dress like a "buddhist". There are no buddhist decorations or Buddha statues. No incense. Students find him through word of mouth. He has approx. 15-20 students at any given time. He teaches 3 nights a week in his livingroom. We all sit in a circle on the floor together. He teaches and then we sit. No prayer party here and no piosity.

In 10 years I've heard the word "rebirth" come out of his mouth maybe 5 times. When a new student goes off about rebirth as they tend to do, he says something like "why do you care about other lives when you can't even be still in this life"? He focuses beginners on practice, and there is a smaller group of long-term practitioners (5 or more years of practice) that meet with him separately for more "advanced" studies. Concepts are explained with a bare minimum of non-english words, even for advanced students. He uses whatever it takes to explain difficult concepts...science, technology, philosophy, math, art, current events, history, mundane aspects of life, songs, jokes.

I much prefer this model of teaching to one that is clogged with ritual, poor English, distain and ignorance of Western culture, the use of fear as a teaching strategy, and teachings that are over-ladened with complex non-English terms that are used to explain other complex non-English terms, etc...that many of us here in the West have encountered with traditional Eastern teachers. Who cares if the message isn't compromised if it doesn't even come through with a clear channel?

He has invented a non-traditional style of Western style of teaching that is rigorous, accessible, and very effective - but perhaps if it is viewed superficially from the outside it too would look like Buddhism lite (too much laughter, no doubt) and might appear to be compromising the message. It is anything but. To use a quaint american phrase, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Unfortunately, he is now nearly dead. A treasure lost.

Are there some under-informed Western teachers cherrypicking parts of the teachings? Yes. Are there ineffective Eastern teachers teaching Westerners who cherrypick the teachings? Yes. We need to choose carefully.
Vision is Mind
Mind is Empty
Emptiness is Clear Light
Clear Light is Union
Union is Great Bliss

- Dawa Gyaltsen

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Disclaimer: I'm a non-religious practitioner of Theravada, Mahayana/Vajrayana, and Tibetan Bon Dzogchen mind-training.
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Re: Challenges facing Buddhism in the Modern World

Postby David N. Snyder » Mon Mar 23, 2009 2:10 pm

mikenz66 wrote:Retro makes a good point about people being "sold" Buddhism as being "scientific", "having no beliefs", and, in particular "you don't need to worry about this talk of other lives and so on".

There are some teachers and students who feel like that. But, at least for me, I see rebirth as at least compatible to science and logic. Not scientific in the way of easily being testable, but compatible in the sense of the way science, logic, and nature work.

To put it simply, science and nature work in cycles and have a way of balancing things, almost a "justice" element to them. For example, the coming and goings of the seasons, the rebirth of a forest after a forest fire. The nitrogen and other chemicals released which make a forest or eco-system self-correct itself. The chaos of nature, but then the balancing and correcting effects that come later. To me, this is all at least compatible to the "justice" and correcting elements of rebirth. If we are the least bit spiritual or religious, how could some live only 6 months long, die of SIDS, and others live to 90 or longer? Rebirth is logical and balancing, like nature and science. :ugeek:
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