Buddhism and Globalization

Buddhism was mostly affiliated with either genuine Asian traditions or distorted Western versions, which altered an initial meaning and rendered it in another language or merged with a distinct socio-cultural background. Proponents of such theories draw their criticisms on the perceived dichotomies between the West and the East, colonial past and various historical implications largely ignoring intrinsic characteristics of not only the recent trends of globalization but fundamental notions of modernization. Going even further, some aspects of traditional Eastern religions were posed as ultimately disfigured by an evil force of the Western-driven modernity. Such categorizations seem superficial and narrow as they don’t take into account global nature of an aforementioned process and intensified deconstruction of social or philosophical dichotomies.
We will artificially divide our observations into three parts. For the beginning, we will try to analyze the process of modernity and its historical roots, particularly, to emphasize cultural relationships and their margins. Roughly speaking, it involves the history of how the West “subdued” Buddhist traditions and restated its features. Secondly, our focus of attention will be made on the modern practices and already pervaded signs of the modern discourse within Western Buddhist traditions. And finally, we are going to conclude with a shallow examination of the modern role of Buddhism as a religion and its future perspectives on a global level, thus, trying to recapture lost meanings of the current socio-cultural discourse.
At first, Buddhism as a category is an offspring of the nineteenth century projects of the rationalization and systematization. Also it implies some other aspects of the same era, for example, the creation of the modern nation-state “Japan” which came to embrace a new reality of nationalism after the famous Meiji Restoration. So Buddhism also became a part of it, rather ideological than independent system. Further expanded modernity also embraced vast processes of urbanization and industrialization that concluded in erased boundaries between various localities. Modernity should not be understood as an exclusively Western process because of the apparent peculiarity of the seventeenth century Enlightenment, but on the contrary, it has to include various alternative versions, or as some scholars put it “coeval modernity.” (Ivy, 313-317). As Said concluded, “Orientalism depends for its strategy on the flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him upper hand.” (Said, 7) It was a nature of the colonial Buddhist understandings. And it was mainly based on the scriptural analysis of the Buddhist thoughts and traditions, driven by the conviction that written language supersedes vernacular one. Buddhism became a repository of various premodern, traditional values and thoughts which were considered to be Asiatic. One of the most interesting interpretations of the Buddhist religion can be found in the famous work of Max Weber, where he examines protestant ethic and poses it as an indispensible prerequisite for capitalism. Weber’s classification put Buddhism within a pan-Asiatic form of being, without taking into account various schools and traditions (Ivy, 321-322).
The same inferior pattern continued to evolve after the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, but it also included already globalized and universal notions of the Japanese Buddhism which designated itself as an appropriate religion for a world-class power. Furthermore, it implied an ever ambitious project of ‘overcoming the modern’ which was typical for other nationalist discourses of the same time. It seemed unthinkable that the celebrated nonduality of the Zen experience could become a potent underpinning of the fascist ideology. “The Japanese philosopher’s attempts to get out of this enclosure, to overcome modernity by a leap out of the Weberian Iron Cage of the imperialist West, could be achieved in practice by one thing and one thing only: total war” (Ivy, 321-324). Thus stated, Buddhism became a logical process of the traditionalist and irrational solutions of the Western decadence. Inflected by a new socio-political reality, it reexamined its roots and historical differences with the continental traditions. Regarding this and other facts we cannot solely blame the Western interpretation of Buddhism when we are talking about Japanese Zen tradition. The West also subsumed a driving force directed towards fascist discourses within it. It does not reject the fact that the ideological formation was dominated by the West and the stride towards nationalism in Japan was fomented by the industrialization or opening borders. But it rather highlights the fact that local forces are able to find a new context though looking inward and juxtaposition against an outer world which is also created by them. This is a core understating in the very process of globalization and it encompasses every region of the world regardless of its structural position in a wider system.
The process of globalization expanded for the following decades. New technologies contributed to the rapid spread of Buddhist ideas, texts and traditions. Since the 60s it has transformed into a globalized religion which encountered “local transformation” in different regions. The basic assumption about its globalized nature pertains to the notion of decentralization. Buddhism encompasses dissolving of an Asian center and dissemination across the world with equally authoritative centers in different places and cultures. For example, in America various Buddhist teachers, most notably Shaku Soen, Nyogen Senzaki, Soyu Matsuoka Roshi and others contributed to the spread of the Japanese Buddhism and promulgated the ideas of Zen. Other Buddhist schools, particularly, Vietnamese one give raise to the “socially engaged Buddhism” which is seen as one of the most Westernized versions of the religion. Modern concern about human rights and ecology so widely shared by the Buddhist religious groups also have its root in an earlier merger of some of the Western religious ideas and Westernized Buddhist schools. Socially engaged Buddhism has becoming more and more popular in the world. (Prebish and Keown, 198-216).
The spread of the Buddhist ideas and beliefs had diverse repercussions. The secular West faced detraditionalization of the religion which had its profound responses in the social sciences. Driven by the postmodern theory, a globalization of Buddhism was analyzed by the sophisticated scientific apparatus involving various fields of study. One of these notable reverberations is found within modern social theory, particularly, of that of Antony Giddens, who tries to reconcile ostensibly controversial trends of postmodernity and tradition. Referring to him, Simmon S. Smith argues that the Western Buddhism can be seen as a discursive response to the post-modern project, along with some other conservative trends analyzed by Giddens. The role of the tradition has its easy resemblance in traditional or Westernized Buddhist thought. Apparent popularity of the notion of Nirvana, in Smith’s words, means that “there is a greater sense of nirvanic immediacy.” For its part, it serves as a new foundation of tradition, something that people can rely on. Smith founds some similarities between a postmodern sense of illusion and Buddhist awareness of it. Thus, the Buddhist path towards enlightenment implies the discovery of a true reality. More specifically, globalization itself creates a unique condition juxtaposing the local against global, thus seeking a point to rely on. In consideration of this, Buddhist views have some affinity with aspects of contemporary self-identity and tradition. In order to explore the notion of tradition, the author recalls Buddhist ideas, referring to the importance of the memory and synchronic sharing of experience by individuals. The latter aspect can be seen in many religious practices, but the security aspect additionally alludes to the Buddhist notion of rebirth and enlightenment. Smith further explores the modern implications of the Western Buddhism, which can be conceived as a reciprocal exchange between the Western and Eastern traditions. (Smith, 1996)
In conclusion, we can make an assertion that modern Buddhism like some other types of religions with intense vicissitudes, became an intrinsic part of a globalized world. With its philosophy of the way of life, it takes special place in an increased uncertainty of the human and cultural identity, both particularizing and generalizing itself. As we have already seen Buddhism shaped its modern identity beginning from Meiji Restoration and continuing though the most modern trends of the Western schools. Furthermore, it has showed its willingness and potential to transcend the crucial problems of modernity. In this sense, some scholars talk about the Post-Buddhism as a proper term for the new infusion of ideas and practices in an increasingly globalized world (Ivy, 328).

One Response to Buddhism and Globalization

  1. The art of war…

    I’ ……

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