David L. McMahan on Buddhism, Science & the Humanities, & Modernity


In this second part of the series on Buddhist modernism, Buddhist post-modernism, and what comes next, I interview David L. McMahan, who is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in the US. David is the well-known author of The Makings of Buddhist Modernism, which had a serious impact on more learned, thinking Buddhists in the West who were willing to challenge some of their assumptions about Buddhism and its development here. David’s book acted as an analysis of the Western influences on how Buddhism was shaped and showed that they had an insipid influence in ways that practitioners were generally oblivious to. From the role of romanticism, to secularism, to notions of selfhood, David’s book was an incredible journey into the underlying structure of Western Buddhism itself, revealing how this often described ancient wisdom tradition was actually in great part the creation of Westerners.

9780195183276We touch on the book and discuss how he views it today and its influence, but most of our conversation is about work he has written since then, editing and making contributions to books including Meditation, Buddhism and Science from 2017 and Buddhism in the Modern World from 2012, and we touch on his first book, Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahayana Buddhism from 2002. David has an interest in the relationship between the humanities and science and how this affects Buddhism and is interested in maintaining an important role for the humanities in understanding Buddhism at a time when science has become fetishised and pushed to the forefront as a validating force for an idealised form of Buddhism and we talk about this in some detail. We also talk about phenomenology, Western philosophy, developments in contemporary Buddhism, and of course the issues of modernity and post-modern thought and its potential impact on the current Buddhist landscape.
I was still rather ill when interviewing David so if you hear my voice stammering and weak, this is the reason why. I don’t think it gets in the way of the interview but it was strange to hear myself with an almost alien voice, panting, and unfortunately, sounding ready for the hospital.

In two weeks the final part of this series will be available with Ann Gleig, a fellow Brit working in Florida, in which we explore her book American Dharma: Buddhism beyond Modernity, and it would be interesting to get some feedback on what you all think about all this. We are doing this for your benefit after all.


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Music by Stray Dogg from their fresh new album ‘Look at the Moon’




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