IBP 48: Critical Reflections on Western Buddhism

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We reach our penultimate episode in this series with Buddhist academics. Richard K. Payne is former Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at Berkley. Richard also trained as a Shingon Priest, and provides interesting insight into Buddhism at his blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought.

We get stuck into a whole range of topics in the conversation, from White Buddhism to perennialism, from Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True? to mind-body dualism. We also touch on popular themes to the podcast such as transcendence, ideology and anti-intellectualism. Below you will find the article on Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism, which is discussed and it is is a must read for contextualizing some of the odd fantasies Westerners still hold onto regarding Buddhism.

Payne Traditionalist Representations PW

There is also a slightly longer introduction than usual which contextualizes this year’s output, gives a view to where we’re heading, and provides a few updates.


Richard K. Payne’s University website:

Richard K. Payne’s blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought:

Incite Events advertised in the intro:

Podcast Updates & Request (…not for money!)


Here are a few updates for the podcast. We have two episodes left from the wonderful world of academia with the next one being a conversation with Richard K. Payne, Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkley, and senior editor of the Pacific World Journal. Richard also trained as a Shingon priest in Japan, and has an insightful blog called Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought. We talk about aspects of online Buddhist culture, White Buddhism, why Richard Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True” may not be true at all, perennialism, ideology and transcendence, as well as anti-intellectualism in Buddhism. As I mention on the podcast interview, I highly recommend reading a text by Richard on traditionalism and perennialism and the role they have played in forming many of our enduring fantasies about Buddhism.

After that, you will get to hear an interview with Donald S. Lopez, Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. Many of you will be familiar with Donald’s work already, in particular his texts that look at the history of Buddhism with a very original twist. From Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to The Scientific Buddha, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, Donald has written entertaining accessible books thoroughly rooted in deep scholarly work that dismantle many of the enduring myths we hold regarding Buddhism and its authentic past. Many of you will also be familiar with The Madman’s Middle Way, and we talk about this text along with his others throughout the interview. I’m a big fan of Donald’s work, and if you are too, you will no doubt find this conversation highly stimulating.


Rounding up with post-modernity: Ann Gleig on American Dharma & Buddhism Beyond Modernity


Here we are, the last in our three-part series on Buddhist Modernism, post-Modernism, and what comes after. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it educational so far and are ready for the final episode!

Professor Ann Gleig joins the podcast from sunny Florida for a discussion of her brand new book ‘American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity‘. Our discussion centers on her text, and expands out to touch on issues such as social justice, recent sexual scandals in Buddhist communities, the loss of boundaries between the academic and practitioner, and obviously, lots more. A big theme in Ann’s book is the development of post-modern influences in the current western Buddhist landscape and she explores multiple modernities and the ways scholars are attempting to make sense of the changes afoot, which you dear listener are part of. Ann’s book is as new as can be, surveying the current landscape of American Buddhism and beyond and extremely affordable, so why not get yourself a copy.

Find out more about Ann at:

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


Music from Bristol’s Idles. I couldn’t resist putting on their very punky ‘White Privilege‘, which will make sense when you get to  end of the interview. Be warned though, it is very punky.

David L. McMahan on Buddhism, Science & the Humanities, & Modernity


In this second part of the series on Buddhist modernism, Buddhist post-modernism, and what comes next, I interview David L. McMahan, who is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in the US. David is the well-known author of The Makings of Buddhist Modernism, which had a serious impact on more learned, thinking Buddhists in the West who were willing to challenge some of their assumptions about Buddhism and its development here. David’s book acted as an analysis of the Western influences on how Buddhism was shaped and showed that they had an insipid influence in ways that practitioners were generally oblivious to. From the role of romanticism, to secularism, to notions of selfhood, David’s book was an incredible journey into the underlying structure of Western Buddhism itself, revealing how this often described ancient wisdom tradition was actually in great part the creation of Westerners.

9780195183276 (more…)

From Modernity to Post-Modernity, and Beyond


And so it begins. This post signals the start of a three-part podcast series exploring Buddhist Modernism, Buddhist Post-Modernism and what comes after. These are three conversations with three different academics exploring contemporary Buddhism, mostly in the West, but also bridging across to Asian countries.

The three conversations in many ways highlight the difficulty in conceptualising historical change in the complexity of the globalised culture within which we are situated; even as we sit on our meditation cushions. At one point the focus of my questions was on post-modernity and the influence of post-modern and poststructuralist thinkers on contemporary Buddhism, but this proved to be too limited for understanding what is taking place in the current Buddhist landscape. The fact is that post-modernity has provided a number of critical tools for thinking about Buddhism and critiquing Buddhist modernity, but its limitations, visible elsewhere, are also present in an analysis of contemporary Buddhism, or better, Buddhisms. These three academics are all attempting to make sense of our contemporary moment, and the impact and role this has on Buddhism. Each is drawing on a variety of conceptual tools, asking important questions, and grappling with complex issues which are contemporary for any thinking practitioner.

The three guests are all members of generation X and the tone of each conversation is slightly different from some of my conversations with those defined as boomers. I find this interesting and many of the characteristics that define generation X can be heard in my conversation with the first guest Scott Mitchell: there is humour, playfulness, a sense of irony, curiosity and a sense of honesty about limitations in terms of knowledge. I had listened to a conversation Scott had on the New Books in Buddhism podcast in which he discussed his most noted work Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts and I confess to finding the conversation rather boring. This meant my expectations for our conversation were quite low, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scott was a great interlocutor. He was really game in exploring a wide variety of topics with me that went beyond the questions I initially gave him and we look at bridging Buddhism from America to the rest of the globe, the rise of China and its potential impact on Buddhism globally, the fallacy of believing in a single true Buddhism, and a critical engagement with Buddhism more broadly. The link to our conversation can be found below and I highly recommend giving it a listen.

The second conversation is with David L. McMahan, who is probably best known for his book The Makings of Buddhist Modernism. I was ill during our conversation, but that didn’t stop us from discussing his work, his more recent publications and a variety of topics which I think are all important and relevant to practitioners. We get into discussing the need for balance in thinking about and engaging with meditation in the current climate with its fetish for science and the scientific reading of decontextualised practices. David rightly reminds us that you cannot take context, history, and politics out of the meditation practice and we look at the significance of this conversation.

The third conversation is with Ann Gleig and rounds off the series nicely with a look at her freshly published book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. The book and our discussion link back through the previous interviews, and forwards to some of the challenges of definitions, categories, and the desire to make sense of complexity in a fast paced changing global world. Ann has carried out the most up-to-date survey of the contemporary Buddhist landscape in America and beyond, and many of the non-academic figures we have interviewed appear in her text. I’m even in the book! In fact, I assume some French philosopher or sociologist has come up with some term to describe the odd situation in which I am interviewing an author about a book in which I appear. If you know it, feel free to share in the comments section.

Enjoy the series and get stuck into the ideas. The line that separates academics and practitioners is thinner than it’s ever been so feel free to invest your own intelligence and time into thinking about the challenges presented in these three conversations. These are exciting times.

Back to Life, Back to the Podcast


So, I am home after 10 days in hospital and a bit of a scare. I am now on the mend and should hopefully return to full health within the next three months. I have to say that the hospital care I received in Italy has been fantastic and was a reminder of how important a National Health Service is. I discovered that the cardiology department in Trieste is one of the best in Europe too. The idea that a person would be denied the care I received because of an inability to pay is astonishing and in my view thoroughly immoral.

Being so vulnerable and so reliant on others is a fascinating and destabilizing experience. Being in hospital was also a deeply moving experience, not only for my own suffering and the difficulties I faced and shared with my wife and family, but in seeing my fellow humans in various stages of frailty, decay and differing degrees of vicinity to death. The care with which the doctors and nurses and auxiliary staff treated each and every one that I came into contact with was profoundly touching. Staying in hospital is like living in a different time zone, an alien place in which many of the normal rules of life simply vanish and even the staff acknowledge that this experience of time and place was similar for them. The experience was similar in many ways to being in prison or in a monastery too, and I feel like I was released after serving a sentence; one that was to be paid to those gods that remind us of our mortality in the most explicit of ways.

The podcast will now start up again. The break was relatively short for you listeners but it happened in the middle of several projects taking place. The next three interviews share a similar theme, which is the meeting of Buddhist Modernism with what comes after, including critiques of Buddhist Modernism, reactions to it, and the attempts to give sense to something else. The three guests that participate in this exploration are Scott Mitchell, David L. McMahan, and Ann Gleig. Each is commenting on the contemporary Buddhist landscape, starting with America, and then spreading outwards. Scott comes on first and he and I had a fun conversation, which exceeded my expectations, in which we bridge Buddhism from America to Europe to the rest of the world in a way which I think is rather productive. I then talk to David about his work since The Making of Buddhist Modernism. He’s written some rather interesting work since and we look at the relationship he sees between a variety of thinkers operating after modernity. The interview with Ann still has to take place and will cover her new book, American Dharma: Buddhism beyond modernity. The interview with Scott will be up very, very soon.

There will also be a short Incite seminars interview with A. K. Thompson in the middle of the three above.

A month off of work should give me a bit of time to start thinking about a book I’ve been meaning to write. I’ve no idea if people bother reading books any more, but I’ve got one which I think is rather important. If family life, and life more generally, permits, I shall start putting something together.

Finally, I put together a Patreon page if anybody’s interested in throwing a bit of coin at the podcast. The link can be found below.

43. IBP: Dr Mikel Burley on Reincarnation, Rebirth & Wittgenstein


Here’s our second episode of the year hot off the…press? We need a few idioms updated for the 21st century, more like hot off my computer. Anyway, lots more goodies are on the way with 2019 set to be a highly productive year for the podcast with some big names coming on. For now, enjoy this fascinating chat with Dr Mikel Burley on reincarnation, rebirth and Wittgenstein.


O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


Music by Stray Dogg from their fresh new album ‘Look at the Moon’