Farewell to “Yavanayāna”

[Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.]

Late last year I was delighted to see a post from Richard Payne retracting his earlier post on “White Buddhism”, motivated at least in part by my critique. It is all too rare to see a human being change his or her mind, especially on politically charged issues where passions run high and it is all too easy to develop attachment to views. I commend and thank Payne for his thoughtful retraction. On my end, he has provoked me to make a retraction of my own.

Payne rightly recognizes that his former term “White Buddhism” does not do justice to people like myself and Chade-Meng Tan who practise this form of Buddhism and are not white. He adds that “The ideology remains and anxiously awaits a better name.”

For many years on Love of All Wisdom, I have used the term “Yavanayāna” to describe this new Buddhism. I now see that this term will no longer do. What I continue to find helpful about the term is the use of the yāna terminology to indicate that what we are seeing is a new form of Buddhism that is still recognizably Buddhist – a major cultural transformation of the Buddhisms that came before it, to be sure, but still of a kind much like previous cultural transformations, no less legitimate than Vajrayāna or Chinese Mahāyāna.

Jim Wilton has critiqued my use of yāna (“vehicle”) in this regard, and he is not the only one. He notes that in Tibet there is a concept of nine different yānas that describe progress on the path. But as I argued in response, that understanding of yāna is contested; the Tibetans have no monopoly on the term (and indeed, it appears that some Tibetans do not understand the term in that way). The idea of yāna was employed by early Mahāyānists to suggest that theirs was a different path from what most people practised; so it was by early Vajrayānists. And I think that the new Buddhisms of the past two centuries make for a similar sea-change, a path that introduces a similar degree of differences.

I continue, then, to think it is appropriate to use the yāna terminology to refer to a certain set of forms of Buddhism emerging since the late 19th century. What I can no longer accept is the yavana part. The Sanskrit term yavana comes from “Ionian”, referring traditionally to Greeks, and is a common Sanskrit word to refer to Europeans. I used that term playfully to acknowledge the roots of the new modifications to Buddhism – naturalized, textually based, focused on meditation, often politically engaged – in Western philosophy. But by naming the new Buddhisms as Western, the term performs some of the same denigration and deligitmation as “White Buddhism” – more implicitly, but it is still there.

Thinkers today are very sensitive to the implications of race and colonial power, which casts a suspicion on anything labelled Western. When new Buddhisms are cast as Western, they come to look not only less authentic (link to explorations of that?) but exploitative or even “imperialist”, the tools of the British or French colonizers of the Buddhist world. But to say this is to do an enormous injustice to Anagarika Dharmapala, Walpola Rahula, Sulak Sivaraksa, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, S.N. Goenka, D.T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, B.R. Ambedkar, to say nothing of their followers. These men were not white, they were not Western. They were not colonizers; many of them were colonized. And yet they not only saw the value of the newly emerging Buddhism, they were among its creators. “Yavanayāna” Buddhism may have its roots in Western thought, but a very significant part of it itself is Asian.

One could of course accuse the Asian new Buddhists of false consciousness, of being so brainwashed by their imperial oppressors that they could not see their own culture. To which one can and should respond: yeah, great way to be respectful of marginalized colonized people there! Somehow you know what a true Asian consciousness is and all these born-and-raised Asians don’t. That’s so much better than all those white people who’ve disrespected Asia in the past.

That objection, then, does not stand. One could, if one wished, still identify the word of the historical Buddha as truer than later permutations in China or Tibet or elsewhere, as Asians have historically also done in Tibet and elsewhere, and say that one’s own scholarly historical research gives better access to that word than does the accumulated Asian tradition. But that is on grounds of respect for buddhavacana and the figure of the Buddha, not of resistance to colonialism or imperialism. Can there be anything more ironic than non-colonized subjects – which is the vast majority of us today – dismissing the legitimate and thoughtful work of colonized subjects like Dharmapala on the grounds that their work is somehow a form of “cultural imperialism”?

So the problem with a term like “Yavanayāna”, I see now, is that it lends far too much credence to such unfortunate dismissals – it leads us to see Dharmapala and Sulak and Goenka and Suzuki as somehow “not really Asian”, and in that way inauthentic, “imperialist”, or both. The hybridity of the new Buddhism matters. It is Asian, just as it is Western.

And so I have come to rule out “Yavanayāna” along with “White Buddhism” as a term for the new Buddhism. I have also ruled out “Protestant Buddhism”. But what then should we call it? Payne closes his post by saying “The ideology remains and anxiously awaits a better name”, but does not attempt to provide one. I will try my hand at doing so here.

Christopher Queen has identified Engaged Buddhism as a fourth yāna, but the new forms at issue here are absolutely not limited to the left-wing political engagement that that term names. At a minimum they include a naturalizing of the supernatural and a focus on meditation; typically they also emphasize scriptural texts (leading to the “Protestant” label); David McMahan makes a strong case that they also include the embrace of interdependence and of everyday life. Goenka and Tan are not politically engaged but they are part of this new yāna. We could then simply call it “Navayāna”, “new yāna”, as B.R. Ambedkar explicitly did. The problem with that term is that Ambedkar used it specifically for his Indian Dalit Buddhist movement, and it has come to be associated with them. Where Yavanayāna makes the new Buddhism sound too Western, Navayāna makes it sound not Western enough.

What does that leave? “Enlightenment Buddhism” is not a bad term, as a slightly punning title that points back to a) the weaving of the thought of the European Enlightenment into Buddhist tradition, as all of these new traditions do in some regard, and b) the common tendency for Buddhists of this persuasion to translate bodhi (awakening) or nirvāṇa as “enlightenment” even though there is no metaphor of light or illumination associated with the indigenous Asian terms. It is not yet widely used, though.

David McMahan’s “Buddhist modernism” is one alternative, pointing similarly to the way in which these traditions adopt modern elements. My objection to it is that many of the new Buddhisms situate themselves against much that is modern. A key example is Sulak Sivaraksa, the Thai Buddhist activist: his Buddhism is politically engaged, in a way that is more characteristic of modern than of premodern Buddhisms, yet throughout his work one finds a condemnation of the modern capitalist world and a preference for a simple premodern life. He is modern yet anti-modern, so “modernist” is not a good term for him.

“Modern Buddhism” would be another alternative, but it seems too vague: it could describe nearly any Buddhism today by virtue of the fact that it exists in the 21st century and has access to technology, even if the Buddhism has more to do with amulets and spirits than mindfulness meditation. Instead, how about modernized Buddhism? That term is inclusive of someone like Sulak who has adapted the tradition to be something very different from its older forms, but nevertheless prefers a less modern society – an innovation through conservatism of sorts. I haven’t thought with that idea for long; perhaps there are big problems with “modernized Buddhism” as well. But it’s the best term I can think of so far.

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