Hand Mirrors and Infinity Mirror: Buddhism, Modern Subjectivities, and Social Change
David McMahan, Professor, Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania
Buddhism has come of age in the West at a time when, according to many social theorists, the inherited European-Enlightenment sense of the self as a singular, autonomous individual is giving way to a fragmented and chaotic sense of subjectivity. This fragmentation is driven by the modern globalized economy, the ubiquity of media, and the disembeddedness of individuals from traditional communities that, in the past, have supplied a stable sense of identity. The felt loss of stable selfhood has created uniquely modern modes of anxiety and alienation. It has also created a space for certain Buddhist ideas and practices to emerge as ways of rethinking and re- feeling the sense of self and other. Among these are the doctrines of non-self and dependent arising, and the practice of meditation. I want to think about some particular ways these doctrines and practices have been reworked, in part, to help navigate the tension between the felt loss of the autonomous individual and the late-modern fragmented self. These reworkings contain a spectrum of different potentials regarding social change, from—on the one side—an emphasis on passive self-exploration, comfort, and personal success and wellbeing, to—on the other side—a decreased sense of separation and isolation from others and the natural world, a sacralization of the cosmos, and an expansive sense of ethical, social, and political responsibility.
David L. McMahan is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008), Empty Vision: Metaphor and Visionary Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhism (Routledge Curzon, 2002), and several articles on Mahāyāna Buddhism in South Asia and Buddhism in the modern world. He is also the co-editor of Buddhism, Meditation and Science (Oxford University Press, 2017), editor of Buddhism in the Modern World (Routledge 2012). He has written on Indian Buddhist literature, visual metaphors and practice, and the early history of the Mahāyāna movement in India. More recently, his work has focused on the interface of Buddhism and modernity, including its interactions with science, psychology, modernist literature, romanticism, and transcendentalism. He is currently researching the various ways that Buddhist and Buddhist-derived meditation is understood and practiced in different cultural and historical contexts, ancient and modern.