Everything Changes. Buddhism, too.

                                           Glass Buddha (Susan Gott, 2011)

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, Dōgen, Hakuin), but there was plenty of in-fighting along the way — Theravāda vs. Mahāyāna, Kamalaō›ila vs. Moheyan, Nichiren vs. Ryōkan, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Western emphases on individualism, competition, achievement, and acquisition have driven rising living standards, but have also fostered a spiritual vacuum.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. Buddhism provides a non-theistic ground for defining the desirable and ethical.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Buddhist teachings on impermanence can foster resilience in the face of change, while teachings on interdependence can deepen ecological awareness.
  7. 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.  

24 Replies to “Everything Changes. Buddhism, too.”

  1. Seth –

    Thanks for these measured reflections. Although I would agree with much of what you’ve written I do find myself questioning some of your generalizations and assumptions. “Theism’s demise”? At least in North America, rumors of that demise appear to have been exaggerated. See “More than 90% of Americans Believe in God” at http://thenewamerican.com/culture/faith-and-morals/7808-gallup-more-than-90-percent-of-americans-believe-in-god.

    You suggest that certain ideas (e.g., an “unnaturalized view of karma”) no longer have much “traction.” I often hear that metaphor used in the context of business and finance, where it usually refers to economic ideas and practices. But in the context of religion? Traction with whom, I wonder; and what exactly is traction?

    Most fundamentally, I wonder what “resonance” means when accompanied by “with” and used as a metaphor. I suppose it suggests sympathetic vibration, as when a guitar string resonates in response to a tuning fork. But where ideas and values are concerned, the metaphor becomes problematic. In the case of the guitar string, it may or may not resonate because the guitar is out of tune, or because the sound of the tuning fork is too weak, or because the guitar is not sensitive enough to pick up the sound. Transferring those complexities to the context of doctrine, I wonder where and why the resonance fails to occur.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ben. You’re of course right in pointing out that the vast majority of Americans continue to believe in God — and we might add that religious revivals are under way in formerly atheist Russia and China, and that Theism is as vibrant as ever in the Islamic world and Christian Africa.

      When I wrote of “Theism’s demise,” I suppose I was using the phrase in an odd — perhaps premature — sort of way. It certainly is “dead” for me, and I can’t think of any way to revive it. I can’t help thinking of Theism as an atavism that will persist for generations (cultural evolution is slow!) but which will gradually fade with time. To my mind it’s already died, but some people haven’t gotten the memo yet.

      I accept that this might be completely elitist and wrong-headed of me.
      Religious revivalism is either a feature or a bug of American culture, depending on where you stand. Every revolution has its Thermidor, and the Naturalist and Existential revolutions are no exception. My long term bets are still on Naturalism and Existentialism, however.

      Leave it to a guitarist (and English professor) to come up with an extended critique of metaphoric resonance! When I wrote about lack of “traction” and “resonance” in regards to unnaturalized karma and literal rebirth, I meant something akin to “irrelevance.” They’re interesting ideas — fun to play with — but they don’t relate in any important way to the concerns that genuinely occupy and motivate us.

      Please send some better metaphors my way!

  2. Great blog. You raised a lot of good points about Western Buddhism. I have a more obscure question. Just as religion has been re-contextualized for the modern era, and as you have explained, Buddhism’s popularity today is due to its appropriateness for our times (non-theistic), can mysticism be re-contextualized for our times? Is it possible for more than just the householder and the monk to change for modern times, but also the adept? A Dogen of our times, to so speak. Anyhow, great writing. Left me with much to mull over.

    Not a Buddhist myself, but I’m drawn to the religion for a number of the reasons you’ve described. With the exception that theism is not a deterrent for me. I love the Western Christian mystics and Islamic Sufis, and find their practices and poetic works to be much more compatible with modern sensibilities. Shinzen Young recently noted (at the Buddhist Geeks Conference) that Buddhism has played a part in reviving the West’s own contemplative traditions. I certainly hope that will be true, too.

    1. Good question, Jeremy. I’m afraid I don’t even know how to begin to answer it. Shinzen Young would be a good person to ask the question of! Maybe some readers of this blog might have some answers for you?

      One question is whether there is, in fact, one “mystical” experience. Perennial philosophers posit the idea that Christian, Sufi, and Buddhist meditators/mystics and psychedelic users are referring to the same underlying experience using different vocabularies — that there is one underlying experience and then there are the post-experience interpretations of them. Alternatively, one could argue (to paraphrase William James) that there are varieties of mystical experience, and that these experiences are all quite different. Does mystical experience (or do mystical experiences) change with the times, or are they timeless? One anecdote — probably more amusing than clarifying — but food for thought. I heard about a young boy who had a near death experience a decade or so ago. In his experience, he was guided to the afterlife by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sambhogakaya turtles, maybe?

    1. Thanks, Katinka! And I enjoyed reading your blog about transitioning from a long relationship with Theosophy to beginning practice within the Gelugpa tradition. I like your combination of love, commitment, and wariness — reminds me of me! Best wishes to you!

  3. Wonderful post, I especially agree with your concluding statement, “It’s just that most of us will opt for a Buddhism that speaks our own language and addresses our deepest concerns”. As a recent convert to Buddhism, I find that this especially resonates with me and my spiritual path, after all if your particular Buddhist (or any other religious) tradition doesn’t resonate with you, then you cannot progress.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Hi Seth, I have read some of your blogs and I think that you mix existentialism and buddhism together very well. I think what is important with western buddhism is the fact that it is much more adaptable and efficient for modern society than any other form of theistic/Abrahamic religion in the world. A Libertarian democracy would cooperate and relate well with liberal Buddhist ideologies. Simply put, the world would be a better place if our leaders could govern through “buddhist” eyes rather than pretend Christian eyes or nihilistic ones. We can talk about Buddhism itself evolving and embracing the ongoing discoveries throughout all the fields of science. In all the other major world religions, any dialogue of evolution and science would be completely distorted and suppressed to the point of blatant ignorance. People in the West and around the whole world (particularly the Middle East) need to drop their old, dysfunctional religious ideas that they blindly inherited from their home cultures and realize that Buddhism is the real deal. The Genius and Enlightenment of the Buddha is always true and indisputable! Perhaps in a thousand years from now all the “bad, humiliating, patriarchal” religions will be rooted out and Buddhism’s diversity will coalesce the earth’s inhabitants into One World living in Peace in a Buddhaland Paradise!

    1. Hi, Brian! I share your love of Buddhism, but let’s not get carried away! There are liberal Christian religions (Unitarian Universalism, Society of Friends) that are also compatible with science, liberal democracy, progressive politics, and world peace. Christians have also produced a fair share of Boddhisattvas (Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Paul Farmer, etc.) and the same could be said for every religion. In addition, while the Dalai Lama has initiated and sustained a dialogue with scientists, the religion-science dialogue is something new to Buddhism, is not shared by all Buddhist sects, and only goes so far (see Donald Lopez and Owen Flanagan about its limits). Our team only gets limited brownie points, and other teams get their share of brownie points too!

      1. The possibilities of Buddha Mind are boundless and I allow myself to get carried away……… Ever since high schooI, I have continually discovered the history and core of Christianity to be a very violent and false doctrine holding no credibility whatsoever outside of one extremely fallible source; the Bible. I have concluded it as a historically horrible delusion that hinders and obscures global and individual enlightenment (metaphorically speaking). In researching Buddhism, on the other hand, the evidence has proven to be true and verifiable with common sense and logic, etc. as well as self-generating a more alert faith and natural spirituality. The Awakened One’s Perfected Wisdom transcends the grand mistakes of the past. OUR HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS EVOLVES IN BUDDHAHOOD, all else is delusion! The prominence of Buddha must become our master and “personal god”, not cleverly contrived myths!!!!!!!!

        1. Be careful, Brian. All or nothing, us vs. them, black/white thinking and blind enthusiasm also contributes to violence in this world. Maybe even more than a belief in a creator God. Mel Brooks once joked that the world’s first national anthem was “Let ’em all go to hell, Except Cave 76!”

          I doubt even a Buddha’s wisdom is “perfect” — this is what we in the writing business call “hyperbole.” And I give Christianity brownie points for inspiring Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Everybody goes home with a prize.

          1. Sadly, I think you underestimate the power and brilliance of Buddha Mind and overestimate the hype and rhetoric of a forever unprovable God. Don’t worry this phenomenon is the typical response. So Good luck to you my friend, but you are still a long way from attaining enlightenment.

  5. Seth,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this posting of yours and agree with it’s major, undergirding point.

    One relatively small point: You write:

    “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.”

    I’m not even sure what you mean by saying that Naturalism (or Materialism) cannot address fundamental questions of meaning and goodness “on their own.” Are you saying that they do not ‘on their own’ offer practices? Or that fundamentally they are unable to address “questions of meaning and goodness?”

    If the latter, I must respectfully disagree with you, and take this opportunity to point you to the following excellent site (which you may already be aware of, but perhaps haven’t delved very deeply into):


    thanks again!
    frank jude

    1. Glad you liked the post! You’re right in interpreting me as saying that naturalism, on its own, is fundamentally incapable of addressing questions of meaning and goodness. My guess is that we will just have to differ on this point.

      As much as I respect Naturalism, questions of goodness and meaning cannot be empirically derived, even though some Naturalists might protest otherwise. From time to time Naturalists come up with some supposedly empirically-based ethical system but these efforts always strike me as being well-intentioned but unpersuasive. If we ask, for example, what kind of life is the most worthwhile or meaningful life — is it a life of artistic creation, or service to others, or hedonistic abandon, or the pursuit of scientific truth, or of religious surrender to what one believe’s to be God’s will — how can the answer to such a question be empirically determined? We could ask other related types of questions which could be empirically answered — for example, who is happier according to some operationally defined criterion of happiness — Type 1 Happiness (according to Epicurus), or Type 2 Happiness (according to Aristotle) — and find an answer to who is happier as operationally defined based on self-report or neuro-phenomenological investigation — but finding that empirical answer couldn’t address the question of whether Type 1 Happiness is superior or inferior to Type 2 happiness, or whether happiness is even the best indicator of whether a life has been worthwhile or not. Mother Teresa was reportedly deeply unhappy in many ways, but her life may have been much more meaningful than whoever we might chose to be an epitome of happiness. What do we mean by a well-lived life? We can adopt values and make value judgements assisted by empirical data — but in the end the choice is always existential, logical, preference-based, or determined by a hundred-and-one unconscious factors.

  6. Hey, Seth. This website is AMAZING for a Year 7 student like myself. I was assigned a task which required a continuity and change paragraph, and this website was PERFECT for the job!!! I love the detail, the pictures, everything about it! Have a nice day-
    Olivia Lawrence
    Year 7K SELP student at Werribee Secondary College, Victoria

    1. Thanks Seth i love the idea of how u described it in detail how did you do all that u must have got taught well in school bravo.

      from the boss toni

  7. Everything changes, indeed! Such is the speed of change now, in particular the explosion in applied neuroscience and technologies such as virtual reality and biofeedback, that it seems increasingly clear that dramatic shifts in the skillful means of the dharma itself are probably going to be the single biggest way in which it redefines itself for the 21st Century. The ‘Transformative Technology’ or ‘Consciousness Hacking’ movement personified by such individuals as robotics engineer-turned-spiritual practitioner Mikey Siegel has already succeeded in developing innovative means for allowing people who may have no experience with meditation or background in Buddhist philosophy to experience profound shifts in perception.

    It appears that the grinding, decades-long war of attrition that often characterizes the path of the serious would-be adept today may be a thing of the past in a generation or so. It’s about time, I think. It’s rather shocking to contemplate that in 2500 years, Buddhism has been unable to achieve the sort of methods that have impacted the general public anywhere near as dramatically as medicine has been able to in 150 years.

    In fact, technologies of the mind are becoming so powerful so quickly that we may have no choice but to pursue this route, as Shinzen Young says in the following quote from a rather prescient interview in 2010: “Will there be technological interventions that significantly aid the path to enlightenment?…I think it is highly probable that that will happen. It is also possible that unless that happens, humanity will not survive…The gods and the devils are running neck and neck as far as this planet goes; the same technology that could liberate humanity could enslave humanity—very interesting.”

    1. Welcome, Lorne! While I’m not a technophobe, I’m less sanguine than either you or Shinzen in this regard. I’ve followed some of the literature on the use of neurofeedback in training people to attain various meditative states, and while I see its potential usefulness (especially for people who have a hard time “getting” meditation and don’t take naturally to it) I also see its limitations. The Buddhist path to awakening is not about achieving specific neurological states or having specific experiences, although these are integral to the path. Neurofeedback might help people achieve a deeply concentrated non-self-referential state by helping them turn off their posterior cingulate cortices and associated default networks, but it can’t teach wisdom or ethics, help them to achieve insight into their own delusion, or help them work through the insights gained from meditation into their daily interpersonal transactions. Zen has historically insisted on a lengthy interpersonal process for transmission for good reason, and I expect that it is indispensable. I see the path to awakening as a gradual life-time process that has no end, although there can be sudden break-through experiences that are part of this lifetime process. As Eihei Dogen eloquently wrote in Genjokan, ”When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.” There’s no end to practice/enlightenment, and probably no great short cuts either.

      1. As you are wary of claims of shortcuts, I am wary of claims that there are NO shortcuts. It sounds dualistic, i.e. “This is the *only* way.” It also doesn’t ring true to history. Buddhism has always been about change and innovation, and the tantric path, for instance, was designed specifically to greatly accelerate realization through harnessing the body’s subtle energies and the power of visualization. The dangers of the tantric path are emphasized by teachers, but so are its benefits.

        Dogen was a great Zen master, but he was also a fan of sitting on the cushion until your buttocks bled. The traditional Zen path gets a lot less romantic when you hear all the stories of psychotic breaks, suicides, back and knee injuries, etc. that were traditionally swept under the carpet while only the successes were talked about.

        I must admit, I did not expect such a conservative response on a post about change and impermanence in Buddhism. The irony that we are having this discussion via instantaneous communication on a powerful machine that no Buddhist teacher of 100 years ago could have imagined is amusing. How many countless people who never even would have heard of the dharma have come to it as a result (much less read criticisms of it). Those that do then have the opportunity to compare and contrast many different methods of practice and a wide variety of teachers that they never would have before. That in itself, one might argue, already constitutes a substantial shortcut.

        I’m rather sanguine about human prospects if we do not find a way to accelerate the path. Only the merest fraction of the seven billion people on this planet now are ever going to have a chance to practice the dharma intensively enough to produce genuine realizations in the traditional way, and that does not bode well for the future of civilization. Technology is only going to get vastly more powerful – what we have seen so far in terms of neurofeedback and whatever else is currently available is only the tip of the iceberg. We might as well face up to that now and not retrench in old ways of thinking about practice that will only ever benefit the lucky few like us.

  8. I think it’s necessary to change in the present condition.
    One needs to adapt to changes in order to survive and adapt to spread the teachings of Buddhism.

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