…there is a new Buddhism emerging, a Buddhism quite different from the traditional Buddhisms of east and south Asia. These shifts in assumption are as substantive as were those of Nagarjuna from what was taught before him, and many of these shifts are of great value. As such, they deserve to be noticed.
The assumptions of this new Buddhism are so pervasive among western Buddhists and among popular western Buddhist writers in particular, it is actually possible to not notice. And, of course, what we don’t notice about ourselves is the most dangerous part of who we are. It can be profoundly misleading when, as is often the case in western Buddhist – and especially within the western Zen communities to which I belong- the claim is that one is transmitting an a-historical path, the once and future way of awakening, unchanged from when the teachings were first delivered from the mouth of the Buddha himself.
Donald Lopez, in his preface to A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West observes the seduction for new movements seeing themselves as a return to the pure ways of the traditions and the original teachers. This has been the case for many who hold contemporary Buddhist views, seeing themselves, truthfully ourselves, as returning to an original Buddhism and its tenants. For instance our appeal to the summation of the Four Noble truths, which like many other contemporary commentators I’ve used as a foundational statement of what Buddhism teaches, is in fact something of an innovation–not an emphasis commonly found in the teachings of traditional Buddhists.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, a western Buddhist monk – and a critic of both Stephen’s book and our contemporary Buddhist movement – summarizes several tenants of the phenomenon, which he calls “Western Buddhism.” As many of these perspectives are in fact held by some Buddhists of just about all traditional schools, (including, as some suggest, the current Dalai Lama) probably Donald Lopez’s “modern Buddhism” is a better term.
There is much truth in the term “modern” particularly if one doesn’t confuse that term too closely with “contemporary,” as this new Buddhism has roots that go back more than a century. However, I’m inclined to find people do confuse modern and contemporary, so I find the term “liberal Buddhism” most generally appropriate as a description for this emerging and pervasive perspective.