What is post-traditional Buddhism?

An essay

Post-traditional: Anthony Giddens to Hokai Sobol.

Buddhism in the West has a rich history despite being a relatively recent arrival. It landed in an alien, modern world in which reflexivity, anxiety, and complex ideas of selfhood, self-realisation and social participation were the norm. Buddhism thus was beset by unfamiliar desires and fears, fantasies and dreams from the get go. This new context forced a process of transmutation on Buddhism, though often in ways its practitioners were blind to. Western convert Buddhism for many has been a poor cousin to the real thing, often leading to the idealisation of an imaginary, original Buddhism and attempts to rewrite history in its honour. Yet Buddhism exists not only as a second-hand religion in the West, with connotations of inferiority or superiority, but as part of a wider cultural sphere in which forces beyond its scope operate and impact it and its practitioners. Part of western Buddhism’s success or failure has been its ability or lack thereof to engage with this wider sphere; a sphere which many western practitioners of Buddhism are either indifferent to or unaware of.

For many practitioners coming to Buddhism in western countries, it has served, and continues to serve as a site of retreat from the complexities and difficulties of the modern age we live in: a kind of space apart, a temporary reprieve from the anxiety and burden of choice that modern society entails and that Christianity and atheism have failed to respond to sufficiently. For many, this retreat is not healthy long-term, however understandable, and the core premise of Buddhism to address suffering and ignorance means an eventual return to the world and acceptance of the challenges entailed by engaging the modern social conditions that we are all situated in. The history of Buddhism in the West is in many ways a history of two forces clashing; conservation and a return to origins, and adaption and change.

Tensions emerge when change and adaption take place as the history of religion demonstrate. The integration of psychotherapy, social engagement, psychedelics, counter-cultural norms, mixing and matching with other religious and spiritual traditions, engagement with philosophy, science and activism have all been and continue to be sites of tension with issues of authenticity and ownership underling such moves, often accompanied by a search for validation of Buddhist beliefs and practices by the most committed. A number of accessible academic works on Buddhism, such as The Making of Buddhist Modernism, have been effective in identifying how such changes have often given rise to new and familiar forms of desire and delusion at work in wider society. These works offer insights that present new epistemic challenges that many practitioners are content to ignore.

Either way, ignored or embraced, traditional or non-traditional, modernity has demanded that Buddhism adapt and expand its original conceptual apparatus and for this motive the challenge of the post-traditional runs through dharma halls and Buddhist temples from Sydney to San-Francisco whether they want it there or not. This presents a challenge to individual practitioners too. For if we take Buddhism as existing within a world which it has a duty to, and not merely through attempting to radiate compassion to all beings for five minutes a day, then it becomes incumbent upon us to look beyond Buddhism to how it affects and is affected by the environment, and social, intellectual, cultural, and historical realities of the world it is situated in. If this is taken seriously as a process of awakening to the wider world, then some of the claims of Buddhism and the identities that form within Buddhist groups become problematic. This is most evident in western Buddhism’s most dysfunctional family members, such as the NKT or the Shambhala organisation. But these groups are merely the more extreme versions of patterns of rhetoric and identity formation that can be found in many, if not all Buddhist groups you may find advertising courses, mindfulness and weekend retreats in your area or online, with or without science, psychotherapy or activism tagging along.

A post-traditional approach to practice is an attempt to engage honestly with the wider world and the cultural complexity that characterises it and it involves a robust engagement with the Great Feast. Hokai Sobol was the first I know of to speak of an initial post-traditional approach to Buddhism and he did so at a Buddhist Geeks event back in 2011. He summarised what was for him a way of thinking about Buddhism that was incredibly refreshing at the time and almost nowhere else to be found;

“…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly.”

Anthony Giddens, the Sociologist whose work Hokai pointed me to, speaks of liquid modernity, rather than post-modernity, as a way of defining late-stage modernity, though both terms point to ways of unpacking our complex times. Giddens’ work has explored the interrelationship between society and subjectivity, and provides us with insights for understanding how we are creatures of thoroughly modern habits, even inside our meditation postures and dharma talk. To talk of liquid modernity is to capture conditions of our social environment that are inescapable; conditions that we are saturated by and that emerge in our subjective experience and response to practice, meditation and ideals within traditions of Buddhism.

Modernity provokes a form of reflexivity or self-awareness that we are still attempting to come to terms with collectively and which is not only positive by any means. An intense awareness of ourselves as being in a world of change and choice means that new forms of anxiety became an innate characteristic of a modern person. Responsibility becomes a burden carried by each individual in ways that were simply not the norm in pre-modern societies where Buddhism emerged. Meaningless is also a characteristic of late modern society and rooted within it is a profound sense of disorientation, which has led, in many ways, to a sort of embrace of hedonistic or pessimistic nihilism. These characteristics should be ringing bells as to why a person might use Buddhism as an escape or fix for the modern condition, but it ultimately fails to do so, at best comprising a momentary reprieve. What we can do instead is attempt to integrate and address the ramifications of being alive in our age through far more sophisticated notions of practice. This requires a kind of upgrade to our ways of thinking about Buddhism, religion and spirituality more broadly. It is not a call to jettison any of them, but rather become more sophisticated in our understanding and engagement.

A further conceptual field that resonates with Hokai’s description above is Metamodernism; itself an attempt to make sense of how history comes along with our present, whilst representing an attempt to resolve an impasse between modernity and post-modernity. Within a tradition like Buddhism, pre-modern, modern and post-modern, or late modern concerns are all operating and this concept points to the need to create a functional, working relationship between them all. This adds an additional layer of challenge to the raw materials we are working with as practitioners that are best fed by the concept of integration. Considering that many expressions of Buddhism prioritise ignorance as the underlying source of suffering, it does not require a huge leap to arrive at the conclusion that ignorance regarding our modern condition is not always served best by more suttas and yet another reading of the Dhammapada.

At the Great Feast, the co-existence of different sociological models for defining the age we live in is most welcome as each provides material for understanding our modern condition and our age’s impact on subject formation and identity and the sort of integration required of us. Each age and phase of history could be seen as forming masks that are performative of models of self (the sort I ran up against throughout my youth and in Buddhist groups) and challenges to integrate. These ages and phases also gift us knowledge and opportunities, and Giddens often describes late-modernity as simultaneously a period of unprecedented opportunity and unparalleled danger. The self, or experience of becoming a person in the world, is ultimately shaped by a richer array of forces than most of us realise or acknowledge. The great gift of sociology to a practitioner is that it points us to how self, consciousness, identity and the phenomenology of each is not merely an individual experience, but is embedded in and mirrors wider social forces at play. Giddens offers us a vision into how the self is formed and challenged in our current age in ways that Buddhism is wholly unequipped to respond to on its own.

Shifting towards a post-traditional conception of the practising life, or pathways of Buddhisms, is a sort of wake up call. The event we are expected to get up for is our current moment. If Buddhism cannot resists as a mere site of retreat, it must necessarily become a companion for engaging with our time, which is markedly different from the previous historical and social phases that the different Buddhisms emerged and developed in and, importantly, were responding to the challenges of. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of Buddhism understands how it is anything but a frozen, timeless tradition, and that change represents all manner of goal from survival to innovation. This acknowledgement makes Buddhism responsible to the changes and wider world in which it currently exists but it also places demands on the practitioner. Hokai laid out some of these in an initial survey of the challenging landscape ahead, rooted in three shifts that a post-traditional take might follow;

“There are three basic elements that move someone’s approach from traditional to post-traditional…, one needs to really make sense of both the techniques and the teachings that one is putting into practice and following…one can actually explain what one is doing and how one is thinking about it in terms of one’s own life, without recourse to specific notions and concepts that one has quite naturally lived without before meeting Buddhism…(two) in pursuing one’s practice, one needs to take an additional degree of responsibility for the results of one’s practice. This doesn’t mean that one does not commit to specific style of practice and one does not basically develop…a strong relationship to a certain community and teacher. However, one must be fully clear that one is developing that commitment and developing that relationship of one’s own free choice. And that whatever happens in that relationship one basically takes responsibility for it…And the third…is a shift which makes it clear that the meditation experience, even meditative realization, in itself, means nothing. Every experience and every realization…needs to be fully interpreted and fully acknowledged and fully integrated into life experience.”

We can adapt this into three practice items that are also three core philosophical concerns.

  1. Understanding: epistemological
  2. Responsibility: ethical
  3. Interpretation: hermeneutic

On the one hand, individual practitioners are involved in these three fields of human practice whenever they make a meaningful commitment to a tradition or set of practices and ideas. On the other, they are submerged in the wider social and cultural expressions of each and the tensions that emerge between them. In our current historical moment, many western countries are beset by multiple battles of meaning making, identity formation and demarcation, and political and politicised visions of selfhood. Old dichotomies rooted in reliable dualisms have continued to fall apart and we find ourselves in front of a landscape of multiplicity. Again, the desire for retreat into stable world views and practices is perfectly understandable, but is ultimately the wrong gesture of practice. You could argue that culture wars are a product of our collective inability to transcend monism and duality and capture an infantile moment of societies struggling to grow out of old habits. Of course, this would an irresponsible interpretation based on preliminary understanding, so not to be trusted!

At minimum, Hokai’s three characteristics present us with an invitation: One that could be formulated in many ways. Understanding is to be developed within a wider community of sense-making; Buddhist or spiritual beliefs are to be brought into relationship with the wider community of epistemological practices. Responsibility is developed in response to the wealth of ethical material we have available and the struggles and sacrifices that accompany them; testing teachings such as the noble eight-fold path or the six perfection against our contemporary understanding of ethics and our duty to this world. The objective is not to carry out a competitive analysis, but treat our struggles with ethical questions as being species wide and forever imperfect. Interpretation of teachings, our experience of them, and the experiences and questions and doubts that emerge from engaging with them are brought into line with an appreciation for the challenges of hermeneutics; the tension between objective and subjective, what is personal, what is collective, and the need to choose words and concepts with care, leading to an appreciation of their power and history.

This leads me to a series of questions. How does the world run through our deeper spaces of practice? How can we build a healthier sense of belonging to this world, and this age? How do we use Buddhism, spirituality, atheism, or agnosticism as a means of retreat from the world, or a means for engagement? How do we walk in the world and engage with the challenges we are all facing intellectually, and practically? Can we integrate our experience of the world into or through the basic materials of a given practice, or are other practices required from within Buddhism or from elsewhere? To what degree do we accept responsibility for our part in engaging with our shared human challenges?