The Myth of Progress

And there may be no 'progress' in religion, in practice, or in the dharma, either. - Gary Snyder

I’ve been hearing from some people recently that Buddhism needs to change to fit with these modern times. I’m not sure what Buddhism they’re talking about.

The accumulated wisdom of the Buddhist tradition has always been transmitted in a living form, from person to person. It is thus an error to view it as merely a static body of knowledge. Each link in the chain of transmission has to re-present the teachings in light of respective cultural and social settings. We can observe this, for instance, in the early history of dharma in Tibet. At that time the great masters worked with their Indian mentors to establish lines of Indian Buddhist teachings in their new setting, one a world away from the intellectually and artistically sophisticated culture of medieval India.

Yet to accept the necessity of creative re-presentation of the tradition does not necessarily entail that we could or should improve upon the dharma itself. Nevertheless, it seems that such assumptions are prevalent in contemporary Western dharma circles due to the unacknowledged influence of the idea of progress. The power of this myth is at work whenever people talk of such things as “what the modern world can do for Buddhism” or “how science must validate the dharma.”

The notion that history is progressive and that, consequently, we are in important respects superior to preceding generations, is deeply ingrained in our way of thinking. It appears to have its roots in the Judeo-Christian notion that history is linear and is thus moving forward to a terminal point—in Christian terms, the Second Coming of Christ, an event that will usher in the end of history.

The notion of inevitable progress has been so tenacious that today’s dominant liberal and Marxist ideologies, which have in one way or another sought to replace Christianity, have swallowed its historical narrative without demur. They have merely recast it in terms of an inevitable social and intellectual progress culminating in the end of history itself.  Without consciously espousing this historical narrative, most of us therefore blithely assume that we are the cleverest humans to appear on this earth, when the truth is far from that.

For every temporary improvement in one area we can point to a corresponding shrinkage of our moral, intellectual, or spiritual capacity in another. The record of the 20th century—one shaped, incidentally, by those who asserted most strongly that history was moving toward an inevitable and perfect climax, be it the communist state or the Thousand-Year Reich—ranks the bloodiest in world history.

Buddhism offers a contrary idea of history. It teaches us that history, as the manifestation of samsara, is essentially cyclical in nature. As with individual beings, so societies and civilizations rise and fall. As it says in the Lalitavistara, “The palaces of impermanence arise and decay together with their inhabitants.”

Incidentally, this is not, it should be noted, a theory of eternal recurrence with an attendant closed universe, Buddhadharma teaches that samsara will continue only so long as its fundamental cause, unawareness, is not eradicated.

In spite of this, the fact remains that for Buddhism progress is not inevitable. The only lasting change is that which is won by the individual effort to apply the methods of the Buddha and, by doing so, finally attaining the transhistorical state of Buddhahood. In this light it makes no sense to talk and act as if we can and must improve on the Buddha in terms of moral sensibility, contemplative experience, and philosophical insight. 

To put it plainly, we take refuge in the Buddha because, as the ritual of refuge declares, “He is supreme among humans” due to his realization of the true nature of reality. That true nature of reality, emptiness beyond coming or going, cannot be modified—it neither declines nor improves. This means that the transcendental wisdom that apprehends it cannot be improved either. If that were possible, the Buddha would not be the Enlightened One and a valid source of refuge.

These questions of adaptation were a matter of intense debate in the 13th century when Sakya Pandita cautioned his fellow Tibetans,  “Since there is nobody in the three realms wiser than the Buddha, one should not adulterate the sutras and tantras that he taught. To do so is to abandon the doctrine and disparage the Noble Ones.”

When we talk about adaptation and flexibility, then, we should not confuse them with improving the Buddha’s teachings. None of the intellectual products of this particular civilization, be they political ideologies or transient scientific theories of the material world, possess anything that could improve the core of the dharma. In asserting this, one is not denying that the dharma can vary in its expression but rather, following the words of the bodhisattva Maitreya in the Uttaratantrashastra, that the ultimate source of the dharma—its very core, so to speak—is the unchanging state of Buddhahood: “In a true sense only the buddha is the refuge of beings since only he embodies the body of the dharma (dharmakaya).”

The rejection of progress as incompatible with the very nature of dharma might strike some as being in conflict with the view expressed in such Mahayana scriptures as the Saddharmapundarikasutra that all beings will eventually attain Buddhahood. The Mahayana notion of universal enlightenment should not, however, be misunderstood as a claim that progress toward Buddhahood is somehow structured into the very nature of the world, and that we are always reaching ever closer to it. Instead, its sense is that all beings will obtain enlightenment because they are primordially pervaded by buddhanature, the true nature of reality itself. As it says in the Hevajra Tantra, “All beings are already buddhas but this is obscured. When the obscurations are removed this is Buddhahood.”

The task before us in the 21st century is not to alter the timeless message of the Buddha, but, once we have received it fully (a process which may well have some way to go!), to present it in the language and organizational forms most appropriate for the contemporary situation. By doing so, we will emulate the bodhisattva Samantabhadra’s famous vow: “May I teach the dharma in however many languages of beings there may be.”

It would serve us well to remember that in the West, it’s still the early days of buddhadharma. For us, the Buddha is still teaching in Bodhgaya and Guru Padmasambhava has just decided to tame the proud.