And so it begins. This post signals the start of a three-part podcast series exploring Buddhist Modernism, Buddhist Post-Modernism and what comes after. These are three conversations with three different academics exploring contemporary Buddhism, mostly in the West, but also bridging across to Asian countries.
The three conversations in many ways highlight the difficulty in conceptualising historical change in the complexity of the globalised culture within which we are situated; even as we sit on our meditation cushions. At one point the focus of my questions was on post-modernity and the influence of post-modern and poststructuralist thinkers on contemporary Buddhism, but this proved to be too limited for understanding what is taking place in the current Buddhist landscape. The fact is that post-modernity has provided a number of critical tools for thinking about Buddhism and critiquing Buddhist modernity, but its limitations, visible elsewhere, are also present in an analysis of contemporary Buddhism, or better, Buddhisms. These three academics are all attempting to make sense of our contemporary moment, and the impact and role this has on Buddhism. Each is drawing on a variety of conceptual tools, asking important questions, and grappling with complex issues which are contemporary for any thinking practitioner.
The three guests are all members of generation X and the tone of each conversation is slightly different from some of my conversations with those defined as boomers. I find this interesting and many of the characteristics that define generation X can be heard in my conversation with the first guest Scott Mitchell: there is humour, playfulness, a sense of irony, curiosity and a sense of honesty about limitations in terms of knowledge. I had listened to a conversation Scott had on the New Books in Buddhism podcast in which he discussed his most noted work Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts and I confess to finding the conversation rather boring. This meant my expectations for our conversation were quite low, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scott was a great interlocutor. He was really game in exploring a wide variety of topics with me that went beyond the questions I initially gave him and we look at bridging Buddhism from America to the rest of the globe, the rise of China and its potential impact on Buddhism globally, the fallacy of believing in a single true Buddhism, and a critical engagement with Buddhism more broadly. The link to our conversation can be found below and I highly recommend giving it a listen.
The second conversation is with David L. McMahan, who is probably best known for his book The Makings of Buddhist Modernism. I was ill during our conversation, but that didn’t stop us from discussing his work, his more recent publications and a variety of topics which I think are all important and relevant to practitioners. We get into discussing the need for balance in thinking about and engaging with meditation in the current climate with its fetish for science and the scientific reading of decontextualised practices. David rightly reminds us that you cannot take context, history, and politics out of the meditation practice and we look at the significance of this conversation.
The third conversation is with Ann Gleig and rounds off the series nicely with a look at her freshly published book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. The book and our discussion link back through the previous interviews, and forwards to some of the challenges of definitions, categories, and the desire to make sense of complexity in a fast paced changing global world. Ann has carried out the most up-to-date survey of the contemporary Buddhist landscape in America and beyond, and many of the non-academic figures we have interviewed appear in her text. I’m even in the book! In fact, I assume some French philosopher or sociologist has come up with some term to describe the odd situation in which I am interviewing an author about a book in which I appear. If you know it, feel free to share in the comments section.
Enjoy the series and get stuck into the ideas. The line that separates academics and practitioners is thinner than it’s ever been so feel free to invest your own intelligence and time into thinking about the challenges presented in these three conversations. These are exciting times.
Listening to this now, interesting podcast. You mentioned that Goenka retreats are open to anyone regardless of their beliefs and practices. As I understand it, we could say this is true except if you are doing other Buddhist meditation practices! A friend who mostly does Mahasi style was honest about it in his ‘old student’ Goenka retreat application, and was not accepted on to the course, despite promising that he wouldn’t practice Mahasi techniques on the course…