Secular Buddhism (also sometimes known as Secular Dharma) is a quasi-religious movement that began in the last decade of the 20th century. It is diffuse and, despite the important role of some leading figures, lacks hierarchical authority capable of defining and enforcing orthodoxy. The background of the movement is the development of modernizing trends in Asia in the 19th century. Other formative influences include liberal Protestant thought emphasizing religious experience and social action, Victorian apologetics distinguishing religion and non-religion, Perennialist teachings that all religions have the same mystical core, and neoliberalism’s focus on the isolated individual as the locus of agency, existing in competition with others. Secular Buddhist discourse depends on the semiotic opposition of religious and secular. That discourse itself has two dimensions, a creative one and a critical one. The creative dimension reinterprets Buddhist teachings, institutions, and practices to meet the needs of people in the present. The critical dimension is the reverse of the creative, attempting to identify and reject aspects of the tradition that are identified as inhibiting its utility in the present. A variety of institutions, some online only, have been created to promote Secular Buddhist ideas and practices. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021 has motivated more online activity, including groups meeting for meditation and discussion, and also instructional and training programs. The rejection of prior kinds of Buddhism has included the rejection of traditional Buddhist institutions, which in turn creates the need for alternative forms of authority. In general, claims to authority are made on the basis of personal experience, of a return to the original, pure, authentic teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, of particular texts as authoritative, and of being in accord with modern science.
Richard K. Payne and Casey Alexandra Kemp
Thích Nhất Hạnh in the Context of the Modern Development of Vietnamese Buddhism
Thích Nhất Hạnh is one of the most internationally recognized Buddhist leaders and has a large and devoted following. Despite this, there is a lack of critical scholarship on his life. The biographical sketches of Thích Nhất Hạnh are hagiographical in nature, portraying him as a peace activist, as an engaged Buddhist, and as a Zen master, and disassociating him from the continued development and transnationalization of Vietnamese Buddhism throughout the 20th century. Understanding the early influences in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s life, before he was exiled to the West in 1967, is critical to contextualizing his later framing as an engaged Buddhist leader and Zen master. As a novice, Thích Nhất Hạnh attended a school in Hue that had been set up by Buddhist reformers. When he moved to Saigon as a young monk, he became involved in writing and publishing. During the 1950s his writing reflected the discourses that were central to the Buddhist reform movement in Vietnam, which had been heavily influenced by the reforms that had started earlier in China. The main foci in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s writings at this time included making Buddhism more relevant to contemporary society and unifying Buddhists in Vietnam. He also wrote essays on Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist literature in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. Many of the central themes of his writings, and of the main journals that he edited, reflected the views of the Chinese Buddhist reformer Taixu on humanistic Buddhism, which had been translated and popularized in Vietnam in the 1930s. Thích Nhất Hạnh was recognized by international peace activists after founding the School of Youth for Social Services, which provided relief to victims of the war and poverty in the 1960s. He became increasingly active as an opponent to the war, advocating for American withdrawal from Vietnam so that the North and South could find a way to bring peace without American involvement. This work cemented him in Buddhist literature as the main proponent of an “engaged Buddhist” movement. However, while he became internationally famous for his efforts, they should be seen in light of his embeddedness in discourses of Buddhist reform that were mobilizing many monks and lay Buddhists to make Buddhism more active in the contemporaneous issues of Vietnamese society. Similarly, Thích Nhất Hạnh is also popularly described as a “Zen master,” and while there is good reason to give him this appellation, it should be understood within the context of modernist Buddhist discourses. Part of the construction of Thích Nhất Hạnh as a Zen master has been achieved by placing him in a Zen lineage. However, this idea of a Zen lineage in Vietnam is incongruous with the way Buddhism was practiced there. While Zen has had a presence in Vietnam for centuries, it was primarily as an elite aesthetic curiosity. There were no sizeable Zen communities or Zen monasteries in Vietnam as there were in Korea or Japan. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s interest in Zen is more reasonably attributable to an emerging fascination with Zen in southern Vietnam in the 1960s, when D. T. Suzuki’s works were translated to Vietnamese and young Buddhists became attracted by the legitimizing role that it could have for a reconstructed Vietnamese Buddhism. Thích Nhất Hạnh was taken up by this wave of popularization in Zen, but he did not start to be constructed as a Zen monk or master until after he was exiled from Vietnam and needed to establish himself in the West at a time when Zen had become interesting to young Westerners.
Western Buddhism and Race
Joseph Cheah and Sharon A. Suh
The phenomenon of Western Buddhism has its roots in colonial encounters in Asia and began in earnest with the translation, study, and transmission of traditional Buddhist texts by Western linguists and classicists. Western Buddhism refers to both the study and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia, predominantly in Europe and North America. It therefore refers to a field of study and denotes non-Asian convert Buddhists in the West. The term itself can best understood, on the one hand, within the systematic study of Buddhism in Europe beginning in the 19th century and, on the other hand, in light of the impact of race, racialization, and Whiteness in defining Western Buddhism. Thus, any discussion of Western Buddhism would do well to proceed with a discussion and analysis of race as they are inherently intertwined. Buddhist studies emerged during the height of European colonization and imperialism in Asia, and the scholarly study of Buddhism became a focus and product of colonial discovery and political reshaping. Studies of Western Buddhism and their contemporary manifestations have their origins in the efforts of Western linguists and historians who relied upon and contributed to the process of Orientalist knowledge production, epistemologies, and methodologies to translate and interpret Buddhist texts. Directly linked to colonial policy and power, Orientalist scholarship directly shaped Western perceptions of Buddhism which, in turn, also shaped Asian realities, whereby Asian forms of Buddhism, and Asian Buddhists, were filtered through and measured against prevailing Western ideological and political agendas. Western Orientalist scholars translated Buddhist texts and presented Buddhist philosophy and religion through a distinctly modernist lens that prioritized individual meditation over ritual, Buddhist cosmology and devotional practices. By prioritizing the scientifically “rational” aspects of Buddhism and meditation as a primarily psychological practice, Western Buddhism also favored a narrative of “pure origins” that emphasized the search for a “true Buddhism” beyond its purported Asian cultural accretions. Thus, much Western scholarship produced during this time period emphasized the search for an “ancient” Buddhism wisdom that could hold its own against Western enlightenment ideals. Such modernist agendas thus shaped the formation of Buddhist studies as a scholarly discipline, whose merits were measured according to textual translation and the veracity of purportedly original texts. The development of Western Buddhism is not only shaped by forces of Orientalism, Protestantization, and modernism but also by the historical context of race and racialization. Therefore, to study Western Buddhism without paying attention to its entangled history of racialization and racism would be inaccurate and incomplete. Today, several Euro-American convert Buddhists continue to hold up meditation as the most authentic component of Buddhist practice at the expense of the devotional religiosity. In so doing, this valorization of meditation reproduces the very same devaluation of devotional practice that was rendered backward both in Orientalist scholarship and its modernist inflections in the United States. Western Buddhism continues to be largely defined in the American context primarily through an Orientalist lens and has become enmeshed and nearly synonymous with largely White convert Buddhists’ focus on meditation and the continued exertion of authority within convert communities. With the primacy of meditation as the most authentic form of Buddhism and the power to continue to define the contours of legitimate practice, White convert Buddhist lineages have retained the authority to determine what counts as real Buddhism. In turn, Asian American Buddhists have been promoted in the scholarly literature as overly immersed in popular religion and therefore less capable of determining what constitutes authentic Buddhism. Historically, Western scholarship avoided utilizing race as a category of analysis in the study of Buddhism in the United States and tended toward more generalized terms such as “American Buddhism” and “ethnic Buddhism” to signify the difference between White and non-White practitioners. While these terms have certainly transpired over time and have received an increasingly healthy dose of backlash from marginalized Buddhists and White Buddhist sympathizers, in the unfolding narrative of Western Buddhism and race, labels matter; and the residue of Buddhist Orientalism remains to the degree that “ethnic Buddhism” has become a term synonymous with nonmeditating, superstitious, and overly popular forms of religion practiced primarily by Asian Americans. Through the racialization of Asian and Asian American Buddhists, Western Buddhism continues to reproduce the White privilege and White supremacy operative in earlier scholarship; however, there are many notable challenges to the problem of Buddhism and Whiteness that this article will discuss.
The Chinese Buddhist monk Taixu 太虛 (1890–1947) has been called a reformer, missionary, modernizer, mystic, failure, visionary, ethical pietist, public intellectual, great religious leader, and media personality. He is best known as the modernizer of Chinese Buddhism and the creator of Humanistic Buddhism, which emphasizes rational knowledge and ethical behavior. Taixu devoted his life to two activities: spreading Buddhism throughout society and reforming Buddhist monastic and lay institutions. A dynamic between reform and propagation is evident in all of his projects, including Humanistic Buddhism, establishing a pure land in the human realm, his Maitreya School, and his Buddhist academies. Although these projects are all “modern” in important ways, they represent Taixu’s vision for the continuity of Buddhism’s rich heritage as China moved beyond its imperial past.
Engaged Buddhism emerged in Asia in the 20th century as Buddhists responded to the challenges of colonialism, modernity, and secularization. It is often dated to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s challenge to caste discrimination in India in the 1950s and the antiwar activism of Vietnamese Buddhist monastic Thich Nhat Hanh, although recent scholarship has pointed to the influence of Chinese Buddhist reforms occurring in the 1930s. Hanh coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to describe social and political activism based in Buddhist principles in the 1960s. The terms “engaged Buddhism” and “socially engaged Buddhism” were taken up by loosely connected Buddhists in Asia and the West who adapted Buddhism to a range of nonviolent social activist projects such as peacemaking, human rights, environmental protection, rural development, combatting ethnic violence, and women’s rights. With globalization and technological advances, engaged Buddhist organizations and efforts have spread across the globe. Reflecting the culture shift from the modern to the postmodern, generational and demographic shifts within these communities are marked by increased attention to intersectionality and postcolonial thought. Engaged Buddhists see their social and political activities as extending Buddhism’s classical focus on individual suffering to the suffering generated by unjust structures and systems, and set collective as well as individual liberation as a soteriological goal. While there is a consensus in academic scholarship that engaged Buddhism is an expression of Buddhist modernism, recent debates have arisen around whether conservative, nationalist, and even ethnocentric modern forms of Buddhism can be considered as forms of engaged Buddhism.
Buddhism in Colonial Contexts
Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.