post + traditional + Buddhism
Post-traditional approaches to Buddhism have a long history. Breaks from existing tradition, emergences of new trends, new forms and divergence from orthodoxy are initially post-traditional. Of course, once solidified into new orthodoxy and with enough patronage, post-traditional becomes the new traditional.
These two words post- and traditional should be self-explanatory. But just in case, here is a closer look at their conventional definitions.
Post = after in time or sequence; following; subsequent
Traditional = 1. of, or pertaining to tradition. 2. handed down by tradition. 3. in accordance with tradition.
Buddhism = 1. a religion represented by the many groups that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha. 2. a religion that originally comes from South Asia, and teaches that personal spiritual improvement will lead to escape from human suffering.
I first came across the idea of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism in the work of Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been exploring the intersection of Shingon Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching for decades. He wrote in 2011:
…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly. Hokai Sobol
Described in this way, post-traditional implies an immense challenge. As a gateway to a very different relationship with Buddhism, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. This implies leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition and its forms and the objective of remaking oneself in the image of the tradition. The extent of departure from tradition can vary a great deal, from the refusal to blindly carry out ritual or adopt clothing and mannerisms, to a radical break from beliefs, language and ritualised practices. It is often the extent of disillusionment that determines the degree of such change. The personally meaningful connections that have been established are also determinate. For Buddhist teachers, the adoption of a post-traditional approach might involve an extensive revaluation of the given norms they have been faithful to and a greater degree of openness to experimentation. It may also involve conscious reassessment after many years of practice and a potential reinvigoration of their path.
A post-traditional approach entails a great degree of freedom when examining Buddhist materials, whether teachings, beliefs, symbols, moral behavioural guidelines or key claims without having to adopt a Buddhist identity, internalize Buddhist beliefs, and/or be blinded by a tradition’s particular formulation of Buddhism at a personal, social, and cultural level. It also means losing the need to defer to tradition and its ethical norms. For existing Buddhists, it can mean creative exploration of personal attachments and one’s identification with the forms of Buddhism. It can be an extremely liberating process but destabilising and uncomfortable as well. Other steps that can be fruitful include unpacking, deconstructing and evaluating elements of Buddhism as manmade phenomena rather than as formulations of revealed or universal truth, and the placing of Buddhism alongside other sources of human history, human knowing, human understanding and praxis, in order to identify underlying assumptions and open up beliefs to alternative perspectives. This approach is at its most productive when undertaken as a creative, explorative endeavour that transcends Buddhism, rather than as cynical devalorisation, and the rejection of the past. Examining Buddhism in these ways requires intellectual and critical skills and a degree of personal-responsibility, and, as in all relationships, changing the rules of engagement with a long-term partner requires a certain degree of tact and diplomacy in order to avoid descending into self-indulgence and an unnecessarily traumatic separation.
There are degrees to which the post-traditional approach may be fruitful. For some it may simply introduce greater room for manoeuvre when thinking about Buddhist materials, for others it may result in their Buddhist world falling apart completely. If the identification has been very strong, a Buddhist may soon become an ex-Buddhist, but, with a little patience, an alternative way may be considered in which the split between sticking with it and leaving it all behind is transcended. In this regard, a post-traditional approach may find something of value in non-Buddhism, which goes further down the rabbit hole of deconstruction and critique, but offers a third way of sorts. A controversial project, it offers radical means for thinking Buddhism afresh without rejecting the whole thing:
Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances. Glenn Wallis
Vibrato is a musical term put to use here by Wallis to imply the powerful, dominant messages that Buddhism communicates to the trembling, susceptible heart of its followers. In being self-sufficient in its claims, Buddhism can end up silencing alternative perspectives and interpretations and can overwhelm the new initiate, inadvertently silencing them. To proceed anew, this power must be suspended so that perspective can be gained.
The approach to Buddhism explored here is starkly different from that taken by those Westerners looking for a religious alternative to Christianity, Judaism and atheism, or the spiritual but not religious folks looking to find some undemanding sense of meaning in their lives without the pre-modern demands. Those most interested will likely be long-term practitioners who have become frustrated with core aspects of the path, perhaps ceased to be enamoured with Buddhism’s exotic symbology, or are simply disappointed by their lack of progress in practice. It could conceivably appeal to those starting out but would make most sense to those who have already given thought to the existential questions of life and invested time and effort into self-enquiry. At the heart of this rethink, either way, is the willingness to inspect Buddhism very closely with no reactive Buddhists around to defend its honour. Buddhism would have to speak for itself in dialogue and exploration that is exposed to the wider world of ideas. This is easier said than done of course, but it might be worth having a go for those who have found lasting value in aspects of Buddhism.