Buddhism and the Challenge of Modernity

Professor David Eckel, Religion Department, Boston University and University Buddhist Education Foundation, (UBEF) Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Sydney

Co-presented with the Buddhist Studies Program in the School of Languages and Cultures, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

19 September

Buddhism is often considered the most “scientific” of the world’s religions. It does not rely on the concept of a creator God, and it stresses direct experience, rather than reliance on external authorities. But the teaching of the Buddha has not always been interpreted this way. The idea of a modern “scientific” Buddhism was developed at the end of the nineteenth century by a small and unlikely group of Western Theosophists, beginning with Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, together with a series of forward-looking Southeast Asian Buddhists. The idea then spread rapidly throughout the Buddhist world. This lecture will trace the development of a self-conscious Buddhist modernism from the nineteenth century to the present day, and it will assess its strengths and weaknesses as a response to the challenge of modernity.


Professor Malcolm David Eckel is a Professor of Religion and an award-winning teacher in the Religion Department at Boston University. Before joining Boston University, he served on the faculty at Middlebury College and Harvard Divinity School. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University, his M.A. from Oxford University, and his B.A. from Harvard College. He is the author of several books on Buddhism and the Madhyamaka tradition, including Understanding Buddhism (Oxford University Press), To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness (Princeton University Press) and Bhaviveka and His Buddhist Opponents (Harvard Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies).