issue 20 summer 03
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Modern Buddhism

Readings for the unenlightened

Ed. Donald Lopez

Penguin Books 2002, $16.00/£8.99 p/b

Modern Buddhism is an anthology of writings from the work of Buddhist monks, laymen, nuns, and writers, who helped create what the editor, Donald Lopez, calls 'modern Buddhism'. The book sketches an international movement of reform away from outworn and ineffective forms of Asian Buddhism, and towards the creation of a Buddhism more suited to the psychological and cultural needs of the modern world. It covers a period of roughly 100 years, beginning with a debate between Christians and Buddhists in Ceylon in 1873. Recurring topics are the compatibility between Buddhism and science, the importance of meditation practice, the Dharma as a force for social good, and, behind them all, the need for a Buddhism that transcends cultural and national boundaries. However, a few of the figures Lopez cites, such as the Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa, are concerned with Buddhism as an instrument of social reform in their own country.

Lopez self-deprecatingly refers to the biographical sketches heading each passage as 'a desultory series of vignettes', but I find them interesting reading. The first voice is Madame Blavatsky in the late 19th century: 'Hast thou attuned thy being to Humanity's great pain, O candidate for light?' The last one is that of Chogyam Trungpa, insisting that the Buddhist Way is not easy. Many colourful luminaries are strung between these two, including Anagarika Dharmapala, who attacks false views about the Buddhist attitude to desire, the influential D.T. Suzuki, and more way-out devotees such as Allen Ginsberg. A lesser-known figure is Cheng Yen, a nun working with the poor in Taiwan. The resolutions she makes each year have a Franciscan ring: 'I ask not that everything may go my way, but that I may have perseverance and courage. I ask not for less responsibility but for increased strength.'

Nothing in Modern Buddhism is sufficiently unifying in either doctrine or approach to justify Lopez's notion that it be considered a sect in itself, but a warm web of interconnectedness emerges from this anthology. There'll be a spice of literary nostalgia for some readers, as they dip back into the pages of Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Lama Govinda's 'Foundations...' and it is interesting to see Sangharakshita's work placed in this context. But what really makes the book worth reading is the glimpses it gives us of the lives and work of men and women who each contributed, in their own unique way, to bringing the Dharma to the West.