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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel III: Transnational Buddhisms, 2:00 - 5:00

Buddhism and Multiple Modernities

David McMahan, Franklin & Marshall College

The paradigm of multiple modernities critiques the dominant theorization of modernity put forth by many of the classic social theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marx, Weber, Durkheim and many others predicted that a singular western modernity would sweep through the globe in unilinear fashion, displacing local cultures, and remaking the world in the image of Western Europe and North America. This—say the proponents of multiple modernities—has not, in fact, happened. While western modernity has transformed the world in countless ways, non-western cultures have not simply been passive recipients, remaking themselves in the image of the West. Rather, they have deployed the resources of modernity in culturally particular ways, some of which resist western forms of modernity and assert indigenous, culturally particular modernities. Especially as recent history unfolds, we see uniquely Asian modernities that fail to conform to the earlier supposition of uniformity, standardization, and secularization typical of western Europe.

I would like to suggest that this paradigm is a useful way to examine the modern history of Buddhism and that, though it is becoming even more relevant in recent decades, it even applies to early Buddhist modernism. Over a century ago, two of the early founders of Buddhist modernism, Anagarika Dharmapala and Soen Shaku, both deployed uniquely modern discourses—scientific rationalism, Transcendentalism, and Protestantism—to assert the universality of Buddhism and its compatibility with science and other religions, as well as to assert the particularity of their respective nations, races, and Buddhism itself. More recently, there have been renewed efforts to ally Buddhism with science (the ultimate modernist, universalizing discourse), as well as assert cultural particularity, indigenous identities, and nationalism in places like Tibet and Burma. In a different vein, phenomena like the Thai amulet trade and the emergence of religious tourism illustrate the intertwining of global capitalism with more traditional conceptions of religious power inhering in material objects and sacred sites. Of late, some Buddhists have developed the confidence to resist the earlier need to identify the Dharma with science or to accommodate it to modern western mores and individualism. Some re-assert more traditional ways of being Buddhist, yet use modern technology and conceptual categories to promote it. Socially engaged Buddhism also adopts political and human rights language from the West but uses it to in service of highly particular, local communities.

These and other examples suggest that contemporary globalizing Buddhisms do not find themselves caught between opposing exclusive tendencies—universalization and particularization, globalization and localization, modern and traditional—but rather, deploy both together, often in ways unique to particular localities or traditions. Theorizing modern and contemporary Buddhism in terms of multiple modernities can help to nuance the complex relationships between the universalizing and particularizing tendencies of Buddhism in the modern and contemporary world.

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