This was posted on Facebook today, via Tricycle Magazine. Prof. David McMahan has edited a new volume Buddhism in the Modern World
which looks interesting, and asks as one of its questions:
"An expert on Buddhism’s encounter with modernity, McMahan suggests that we approach the subject by considering a monk in ancient India. “He has left his family behind; he is celibate; he doesn’t eat after noon; he studies texts that give him a skeptical view of the phenomenal world and its value. Is his practice really exactly the same,” McMahan asks, “as that of a contemporary secular mindfulness practitioner who is meditating to excel at work or to be more compassionate to her children?”"
My comment, FWIW:
I'm very glad to see such an interesting article. I've not read anything by Prof. McMahan before, but I will start to pay better attention to his scholarship. I particularly appreciate his focus on the collision between modern secular influences, and that of the teachings of the Suttas, especially on sati or mindfulness. Prof. McMahan identifies the differences between what the Buddha taught as samma sati, or right mindfulness, (wise and discerning ethical judgments and judgments on the value of various things) and the stripped down consumer version of mindfulness that is now part of the western Buddhist menu (nonjudgmental awareness):
"Bare awareness may be a starting place, a way of focusing and concentrating the mind. But this broader context supplies the rationales and aims of practice. Even in the most secularized contemporary mindfulness movements, there are lots of these values and attitudes that enter in because it doesn’t really work without some kind of conceptual and ethical orientation."
The problems inherent in western mindfulness practice without an ethical and value based ethos are just a slice of the western Buddhist pie that needs to be examined carefully. I, for one, feel the Buddha's Sutta based teachings are timeless and that the example of the renunciate bhikkhu/bhikkhuni holds a relevant place in a modern world increasingly bent on greed, anger, consumerism, and delusion. It's my view that Buddhism need not fundamentally adapt and change to the modern world, but that the modern world pay some real attention to what the Buddha taught as Dhamma 2600 years ago. While the Buddha embraced the idea that some aspects of practice could adapt to different cultures and times, at no time did he suggest that the Dhamma be changeable or malleable to suit modern tastes. In fact, the loss of the core Dhamma and Vinaya was one of the Buddha's concerns as he approached his passing. I am glad that Prof. McMahan is devoting his scholarship to some of these important issues, and look forward to hearing much more from him.