Religions and philosophies thrive, wither, or die according to their ability to address the existential concerns of a particular time and place. As religions evolve, traditionalists strive to maintain ideas and practices which have lost their resonance, while modernizers strive to reinvent the religion to meet the needs of the moment. Religions that survive over millennia manage to thread the needle between these two extremes.
Judaism, for example, evolved over time from the worship of a local semitic tribal deity, to a monotheism based on ritual animal sacrifice, to a rabbinic religion based on prayer, sacred texts, charity, and moral observance. There was plenty of in-fighting along the way between traditionalists and reformers — Hellenists vs. Maccabees, Nisnagdim vs. Hasidim, Orthodoxy vs. Reform.
Buddhism has also evolved in response to changing circumstances. Many Buddhisms are long extinct — who remembers the Hemavatika or Rajagiriya? — while newer forms emerge with predictable regularity. Today we honor many of the re-inventors (e.g., Nāgārjuna, Dōgen, Hakuin), but there was plenty of in-fighting along the way — Theravāda vs. Mahāyāna, Kamalaśila vs. Moheyan, Nichiren vs. Ryōkan, Wallace vs. Batchelor.
As we explore Buddhist evolution, it can be useful to examine how Buddhism has adapted — and continues to adapt — to changed existential circumstances. We can ask, for example, “What concerns did Buddhism address in 500 B.C.E. India?” and “What concerns does it address in the West today?” Answers to these questions may help us understand the trajectory of Buddhism’s ongoing evolution.
Speculation about the existential concerns of a vanished culture and era is always perilous, but we can at least explore the concerns that animated the philosophical debates of that time and place. All of the philosophical systems that emerged from the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Buddhism, Jainism, Advaita Vedanta, Yoga) were concerned with pretty much the same thing: liberation from cyclical existence. Life was suffering, the endless cycle of rebirth was meaningless, and the doctrine of karma, based as it was on a set of Brahmanic ritual practices, had lost credibility. The Buddha provided a way to moralize karma and elucidated a path for ending cyclical existence that resonated with his time.
Those primary concerns no longer resonate with us today, at least not in the West. It’s not so much that a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma and a literal doctrine of rebirth have been proven false. It’s just that these ideas no longer have much traction. Most Westerners are satisfied with some alternative belief of what happens after death, either some Abrahamic version of the afterlife, or a Naturalist view of cessation of consciousness. Since most Westerners don’t believe in cyclical rebirth, the question of how to end it is not a front-burner issue. A Buddhism that insists on unnaturalized karma and literal rebirth as essential core teachings is irrelevant to primary Western concerns. Westerners don’t become Buddhists because they want to end the cycle of rebirth — they’re motivated by some other inner disquiet. While a naturalized version of karma and a metaphorical version of rebirth can be acceptable to Westerners, they will never be the core features that motivate Westerners to practice.
What, then, are the primary existential concerns that contemporary religions/philosophies have to address to acquire relevance? Any such list would probably include the following:
- Naturalism and Materialism have seriously undermined Theism’s authority. It’s harder today to define what’s right and meaningful by relying on “God’s word.” At the same time, Naturalism and Materialism can’t fill the void left by Theism’s demise because they can’t — on their own — address fundamental questions of meaning and goodness.
- Western emphases on individualism, competition, achievement, and acquisition have driven rising living standards, but have also fostered a spiritual vacuum.
- Technological advances have raised the specter of global extinction, but our social and political arrangements have failed to rise to the challenge. At the same time, an exponential increase in the rate of technological change is driving an increased rate of social change. How can we address the global challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change, and how can we adapt to the rapid pace of technological and social change?
- The Global Village thrusts peoples with vastly different histories, concerns, grievances, and perspectives into more intimate contact, straining traditional allegiances and identifications, increasing potential conflict, and increasing demands that we be able to adopt multiple perspectives.
- As the problems of infectious disease and subsistence-level poverty gradually recede in importance in the developed world — albeit, much too slowly! — problems of inequality, overindulgence, and chronic disease move to the foreground. At the same time, global inequality and the difficulty of integrating emerging societies into the established international order persist.
Does Buddhism have core features that directly address these concerns? I think it does.
- Buddhism provides a non-theistic ground for defining the desirable and ethical.
- Buddhist teachings on impermanence, interdependence, and the constructed nature of the self resonate with Naturalist accounts of the physical world and emerging ideas from the fields of ecology and neuroscience.
- While a maximalist, unnaturalized view of karma with supernatural connotations rubs against the grain of Western thought, a naturalized view of karma can reinforce the reality that our thoughts and actions have consequences in terms of our character development, relations with others, and long-term well-being.
- Buddhism offers an effective set of tools to help people accept pain, mitigate suffering and increase their personal sense of well-being, meaning, and fulfillment. It builds core cognitive skills of mindfulness and discernment, decreases cognitive rigidity, and helps develop internal resources.
- Buddhist teachings on compassion, non-identification, non-greed, non-harming, and mindful listening can help resolve conflicts within the Global Village. These same values can also facilitate the further taming and civilizing of social structures Steven Pinker has described in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
- Buddhist teachings on impermanence can foster resilience in the face of change, while teachings on interdependence can deepen ecological awareness.
- Buddhism can help the West overcome its one-sidedness. Buddhist teachings on non-greed, generosity, and compassion counterbalance Western consumerist and acquisitive values, ameliorating economic inequality and existential emptiness. The Buddhist cultivation of inner being balances the Western emphasis on doing and achieving, while its teachings on interdependence balance the Western over-emphasis on individualism.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the direction Western Buddhism is taking. Its emphasis on human thriving and well-being, mindfulness, values, ethics, and social engagement is entirely predictable. For most Westerners, a modest meditation practice will suffice to improve their subjective sense of well-being. While there will always be adepts who will access deeper meditative states and make greater commitments on the path of Awakening, the average Western Buddhist will most likely make do with less. This is the way Buddhism has always been — One path for the householder, one for the ordinary monk, a third for the exceptional adept.
Some will be dissatisfied with a naturalized Buddhism that focuses on human well-being. Fortunately, more traditional forms of Buddhism will still exist for them to turn to. They’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going anywhere soon. If Hasidic, Orthodox, Reform, and Secular Judaism can exist side by side in our modern era (as do Liberal and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity), so can traditional and naturalized forms of Buddhism.
It’s just that most of us will opt for a Buddhism that speaks our own language and addresses our deepest concerns.
The Buddha image used in this post is my photo of a copyrighted work of art by Susan Gott, used with her permission.