Buddhism and the postmodern : the nature of identity and tradition in contemporary society
By and large, modem societies have understood themselves to be increasingly without religion. This is reflected in religion's marginalised position within academic disciplines such as sociology and philosophy and, in turn, their isolation from developments in religious studies. The discipline of religious studies itself has sometimes colluded in this process of marginalisation and isolation by a reluctance to engage with the intellectual dynamism of similarly eclectic disciplines such as cultural studies, as well as with current developments in sociology and philosophy. This is now beginning to change, and the purpose of this thesis is to contribute to this transformation by drawing upon debates surrounding the notion of 'postmodemity', and to suggest that forms of religious tradition not only persist in contemporary Western societies, but can exhibit a dynamic and challenging engagement with the cultural conditions which shape them. Concentrating on notions of self-hood and identity, I argue that the encounter between Buddhism and Western society provides an opportunity to examine a role for the religious in the context of a modernity which appears to exhibit increasingly ephemeral aspects, culminating with the postmodern. By initially drawing on examples in colonial and post-colonial South East Asia, I argue that Western and Buddhist cultural forms interacted in a manner which presaged the formation of the complex cultural hybridities that occur in contemporary Western society. Here, through the use of what I shall call 'quasi-knowledge' and 'quasi-memory', individuals are exposed to a multiplicity of cultural phenomena in attempting to establish coherent biographies for themselves, such exposure being reflected in the ephemeral nature of self-perception which is instrumental in the formation of the postmodern self. I suggest that both Buddhism and the postmodern operate in milieux which function on several levels of reality. These, to some extent, equate to certain dichotomies which may be found in modernity, and provide a context in which to establish a continued and significant role for religion at all of these levels. This can be reflected in my notion of a 'de-universalised' society which can encompass both secular and religious narratives - being a product of the tensions found between the two. As a consequence of this, I argue that it is possible to regard religion as a significant factor in understanding contemporary self-hood; as something which is both at the root of its development, and central to its continued evolution.