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Buddhism in the Modern World

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, August 2004

BUDDHISM IN THE MODERN WORLD: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition, edited by Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, ISBN 0 19 514697 2, pp. 287, 37.50.

Buddhism is a living religion, and as such it has to respond and adapt to the modern world. This book presents some fascinating examples of this process in action, taken from Buddhist schools and traditions flourishing in the world today. Each of the ten chapters is by an expert in the relevant field.

Not surprisingly, most of the chapters deal with Buddhism as practised in its traditional homeland of Asia. One exception to this is Varying the Vinaya by Charles Prebish, which describes how monastic rules developed in an Asian context have had to be modified to suit the realities of Western life (for example through the wearing of warmer clothing and use of vehicular transport). In a similar vein, The Making of the Western Lama by Daniel Cozort describes how Tibetan Buddhism's gruelling training curriculum has been softened up for Western consumption by movements such as the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). In spite of this the NKT retains many arcanely Tibetan practices, including the worship of Dorje Shugden which is at the heart of the NKT's widely reported squabble with the Dalai Lama.

Even in traditional Buddhist countries, the practice of Buddhism is not immune from Western influence. An example of this is discussed by Steven Heine in Abbreviation or Aberration. This chapter focuses on the short Soto Zen text known as the Shushogi, which is extremely popular in Japan. While the Shushogi is ostensibly a distillation of traditional Soto teachings, its strong emphasis on repentance betrays a significant Christian influence. In another chapter (Transitions in the Practice and Defence of Chinese Pure Land Buddhism), Charles Jones describes another way that doctrine is subtly changing in response to the general tide of modernity. This chapter deals with Taiwanese Buddhism, and the current trend toward interpreting the "Pure Land" in terms of social change rather than an other-worldly afterlife.

Perhaps the most interesting (if not the most uplifting) chapters are the ones dealing with the wider social and political activities of some Buddhist groups. In "By Imperial Edict and Shogunal Decree", Jacqueline Stone describes the proselytising and sometimes overtly political ambitions of the various Nichiren sects in Japan, including the quarrel between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu which resulted in the creation and demolition of the Sho Hondo temple in the space of 30 years. In "Liberate the Mahabodhi Temple!", Tara Doyle describes the campaign by Dalit Buddhists in India for control of the temple in Bodh Gaya, in particular the way that their militant approach has brought them into conflict both with the Hindu community and with other Buddhist groups.

Overall, this is a highly readable and enjoyable book. Although the chapters are written by academics they are far from being academic papers, and the book should be on the reading list of anyone interested in how real Buddhism works in the real world.

Copyright © 2004 Andrew May

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