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The Making of Buddhist Modernism Hardcover – November 14, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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"With David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism, the study of modern Buddhism has reached a new level of maturity. This sweeping and sophisticated analysis of the ways in which westerners and Asians alike have constructed new forms of Buddhism under the pressures of modernity is thoroughly disillusioning, in the best sense of the word. McMahan shows that much of what has been written and said about Buddhism in the modern era only can be understood against the background of dominant western discourses. Trenchant but fair, erudite yet lucid, this book should be required reading for any serious student of Buddhism, and will be appreciated as well by those interested in intellectual history, cultural studies, or, simply, the inquiry into modernity." --Roger R. Jackson, Stephen R. Lewis, Jr. Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, Carleton College


"David McMahan offers readers a theoretically sophisticated analysis of the development of new modes of thought and discourse in the Buddhist religion since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Grounded in a sound understanding of premodern Buddhist ideas, this work effectively unravels the complex ways in which 'Buddhism' has been adapted to fit the theoretical commitments and tacit understandings of people living in the modern world." --Stephen C. Berkwitz, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Missouri State University


"This is an exceptionally well-written and imaginative piece of scholarship. David McMahan treats in great depth many different facets of Buddhist modernism including art and creativity, meditation and monastic ideals, and science. The writing is clear, straightforward and to the point, and reflects an excellent understanding of how Buddhism fits into the larger scheme of modern religiosity and the development of modern society more generally." --Steven Heine, author of Zen Skin, Zen Marrow: Will the Real Zen Buddhism Please Stand Up?


About the Author


David L. McMahan is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahayana Buddhism and of articles on both Buddhism in South Asia and Buddhism and modernity.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195183274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195183276
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.1 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #260,861 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book should be essential reading for anyone currently involved with the practice of Buddism in America. The author does a superb job of explaining the connection between our heritage of the philosophies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and Buddhism. The book cleared up for me the odd blending of modern science and neo-romantic (new-age) ideas espoused by many American Buddist teachers. It also clearly explicates the differences between many Asian practices of Buddhism and the modern emphasis on or perhaps even over emphasison meditation. I am a Buddhist and I highly recommend this thoughtful, erudite exposition by David McMahan.
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Format: Hardcover
David McMahan does an excellent job of explaining the intersection of Buddhism with the West - both the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the Romantic reaction to that - in the past 100-125 years or so.

But, he also notes that it's more than just an intersection. It was a reaction to colonialism penetrating ever more of the Buddhist heartland. And, while Emerson and other Transcendentals may have made Eastern religion (much more focus by them on Hinduism, though) synthesized with new thoughts from the west, Buddhist thinkers, in trying to defend Buddhism against colonialism and reinvigorate it, willingly did their own synthesis.

And, not all Buddhist modernism, certainly not in its homeland, nor even in the West, has been demythologized today, McMahan notes. For example, though he professes to be willing to drop any belief incompatible with science, the Dalai Lama still holds firm to both karma and reincarnation.

McMahan focus on specific areas of "dialogue" in Buddhist modernism, such as science, meditation, Buddhism as psychology and more. He then concludes with a chapter on the idea of Buddhism postmodernism.

If you're looking for a great intro to where today's ideas about Buddhism, both West and East, have arisen, just how selective they may be in what parts of traditional Buddhism they use as their base and more, this is the book to read.
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Format: Hardcover
Meditation, compassion, tolerance; spirituality, freedom, rationality: why do these adjectives characterize modern Buddhism? Why not temple worship, ancestral cult, or monastic ritual? How do the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Chögyam Trungpa incorporate "strategic occidentalism" into open-minded versions of Buddhism compatible with scientific rationalism, feminism, democracy, ethics, agnosticism, and liberal Christianity? How do Tibetan, Zen, and vipassana "insight" schools of practice adapt for Westernizing markets, whether in Asia, America, or Europe? McMahan mixes theory with examples to explain how both West and East interpret dharma for modern audiences--schooled in abstract thought, raised with consumer capitalism, and participants in globalizing media.

Using Donald S. Lopez' definition of a modern form that "stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community," McMahan begins his study (qtd. 8). By demythologizing, detraditionalizing, and psychologizing, the twentieth century continued the efforts of Romantics and rationalists to prove that not only might Buddhism be compatible with post-Enlightenment thought, it might better Christian or scientific models.

Chapter Two, "The Spectrum of Tradition and Modernism," takes the case study of the "Shukden affair" to show how tensions brought in-- via psychological definitions-- to the Tibetan controversy have been heightened as the "self-understanding" of those involved has been transformed by this modern version of dharma. Pico Iyer's recent "The Open Road" (also reviewed by me) discusses this awkward P.R. situation for the Dalai Lama at more length.

Scholarship enters most doggedly into the middle chapters.
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Format: Hardcover
If you seek to understand how the "Buddhism" we know in the West was created, this book is essential. In this day and age, when even purportedly well-informed authors still depict a rational, proto-scientific physicalist Buddha, and claim that everything incompatible with modern sensibilities in Buddhist traditions is the result of later interpolations and corruptions, this book is a vital and much-needed corrective.

In short, most of what is hocked in the West as Buddhism is a mixture of German Romantic Idealism, Victorian Protestant sensibilities, scientific materialism, and traditional Asian Buddhism of various stripes - probably in something close to that order of prominence. Much (though certainly not all) of the appeal of this concoction for westerners is due to the familiarity that comes with western ideas repacked as Timeless Asian Wisdom.

McMahon does a superb job documenting the many global forces at work in this construction over the past two hundred years.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Enjoyable, but heavy going. In contrast to many of the books out there elucidating Buddhist practice and philosophy, this book delves into how Buddhist ideas have entered Western culture. If you like your readings to contain sentences peppered with terms like 'detraditionalization' and 'hybridity', then this is the book for you. I particularly enjoyed the part early on where David describes 5 different archetypes of people who are into Buddhism, but all of them in completely different ways, and some of them almost irreconcilably so, illuminating the current confusion and identity-seeking that goes on for modern people who consider themselves Buddhist, or who are interested to learn from the ideas Buddhism espouses without living under a label.
Finally, this book is not for the casual seeker of knowledge about Buddhism, but instead for someone well-versed in the subject and the scene, who is looking for some context around the debates and difficulties apparent around the field of modern Buddhism.
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