What is “Modern (skeptical) Buddhism”? The introduction of the Modern Buddhist Bible describes it as:
…more than a matter of simple chronology or a standard periodization into the primitive, classical, medieval, premodern and modern. Certainly modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present.
I can deal with this. It places modern Buddhism into a framework outside of historical timelines and temporal restrictions. Not every Buddhist is a modern Buddhist (and there are those that argue that Modern Buddhist aren’t really Buddhists). Those that still adhere to outdated stigma and religious dogma are far removed from modern Buddhism. I don’t disagree with those sects but oftentimes I think they serve a more cultural role in Buddhism rather than a spiritual one (but can and do serve as both). Vajrayana Buddhism and many of the esoteric sects are prime examples of this. Most of their cosmology is a cacophony of indigenous religions and local traditions held within a Buddhist framework. This works fine when you are raised and born into that culture but there are many out there and I would rather just stick to the basics.
This is fine but most of the original Buddhist practice incorporated two things: First is the yogic tradition of India which basically stated that mental control over psychical properties leads to better spiritual well-being (ie. monitored breathing, meditation, “yoga”) and second is the anti-Brahman movement that Buddhism typified (no meaningful creator, heaven, hell). Early writing and information is scarce of these early sects but for the most part they fell into either an atheist (No god) or agnostic (maybe god but doesn’t matter anyway) camp. Skeptical Buddhism falls into this ideal. For me at least.
…Modern Buddhism also rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism.
Yes and no. It isn’t a prerequisite that all modern or skeptical Buddhists reject these forms. Instead I think it is important that these forms are put into the proper place. Rituals such as mandras, mantras or mundras are often considered “magical” in many Buddhists sects. Does that not mean that when I adopt a cosmic mudra for the purpose of my zazen practice that I accept a magical origin of the hand gesture or position? No. It simply works best for me or helps me focus. No magic there. I could hold a lollypop in my hand while meditating and it would do the same thing.
Mundras and mantras, instead, prepare me for what I am doing. If I need to concentrate on zazen I use a cosmic mundra. It is tradition and I have already adapted my practice for its use. It is not central to successful meditation but I think it helps. It puts me in the right mood and state of mind. Just like zazen itself or some koans, you are expected to move past these conventions when you are able. Think of monks burning sutras or never sitting zazen again after hitting a certain level of enlightenment or of practicioners moving over to nembutsu practice rather than zazen.
…It stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local and exalts the individual over the community.
Yes, yes and yes. We are not tied to a sangha or to a monestary. We are instead individuals following a path that we believe to help us lead a better and more productive life. I accept the teachings of many individuals, not by their placement in a organization but by their depth of character and ability. This is not “new age” or a “clinic”. This is not easy. This is not a chance to reformulate Buddhist teachings in order to sell books. This is Buddhism.
…A return to the beginning to the Buddhism of the historic Buddha himself.
Eh…sure. I think that Zen Buddhism itself considers itself to be a return to the original beginning form but then again, many Zen Buddhists can and will be just as set in their own hierarchies and dogmas as other groups. As stated above – a zen practitioner is pretty much an agnostic yogi with a few more bell and whistles. Many modern Buddhists, myself as one of them, are not very well versed in the actual teachings of the Buddha. This needs to be remedied. I try to read more.
…It is the ancient Buddhism that is seen as most compatible to Modern day Buddhism. Ideals are embodied in the concepts of reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and rejection of religious orthodoxy.
THIS is the defining aspect of Modern and Skeptical Buddhism. Buddhism has always changed with times and regions, as do most religions (although some VERY slowly). I think that Buddhism does a quicker job of it and only addresses what Buddhism can address.
The best example of this is from a modern zen master, in a dialog on the positive aspects of zazen meditation had to reply to comments made about whether or not the practice of zazen can cure disease or some such nonsense. His reply was simple: “In matters of health, speak to your doctor; in matters of zen, speak to me; in matters of enlightenment, look to yourself.”
Zen only goes so far. It is a tool for greater understanding and happiness. Buddhism is the first to embrace milestones in science and reason but sees no need to insist that it relates directly to Buddhist reason or not. But it is realized that it is only part of the greater whole of understanding and that the greater whole is different for everyone. Buddhism has been placed in a scientific framework (Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy by Katsuki Sekida) but it never attempts to put science into a Buddhist framework. The understanding is that zen or Buddhism does not explain scientific phenomena but zen can be measure and observed with an objective, scientific,
and skeptical eye.
I can’t even go deep enough into tolerance and freedom. The Eightfold Path places some moderate restrictions on living (Right vocation, right speech, etc.) but none of it is taken too seriously or literally.
I think that is enough writing for now. I should probably be working on my thesis or something more productive.