A good friend asked today, “What do you mean by post-traditional?” So, as I started answering it became clear that for me this term has three distinct layers. A little background first, though. I first decided to use the term post-traditional in 2011 in the context of an online course, while I discussed it in terms of three shifts – namely, naturalizing the language, owning the results of one’s practice, and integrating life with formal practice – which three complement and mirror the principles of authority, verticality and devotion. There’s nothing particularly novel about this, so why call it post-traditional? In that specific presentation, I did my best to address the fiction of modern traditionalism in Western Buddhist practice, so the solution was to move on, hence POST-traditional.

Somewhat before that, I was considering the term through the work of sociologist Anthony Giddens. In traditional or pre-modern contexts, “individual actions do not have to be analysed and thought about so much, because choices are already prescribed by the traditions and customs”. In post-traditional or modern contexts, the options are as open as possible. Therefore, “society becomes much more reflexive and aware of its own precariously constructed state”. In short, deference to tradition – doing things just because people did them in the past – is the exact opposite of this modern reflexivity. On the individual level, similarly, we need to work out our roles for ourselves. “What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity – and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behaviour.” (Giddens, 1991) I had issues with some of his arguments, but general conclusions were sound.

In his 2014 piece How is the Medium Changing the Message? Ken McLeod writes:

Buddhism in the modern world is a multi-faceted mosaic that is being shaped as much by technology as it is by Western ideas. To the rich heritage of classical texts, monastic institutions and traditional rituals that have been practiced for centuries, one must add the exploration of ways to teach and practice in the context of contemporary society, the re-interpretation of traditional texts for modern contexts with modern analytical tools, the questioning of traditional philosophical, institutional or ethical frameworks, social action inspired by Buddhist thought and practice, and pragmatic Buddhism, the application of Buddhist thought and practice to the problems and challenges of life. Other influences have also made themselves felt: a consumer mentality, utilitarianism, and the adaptation of Buddhist thinking and methods to psychological, medical, corporate and military agendas.

Considering modern Buddhism, McLeod applies Marshall McLuhan’s “four effects” that consider how technology affects existing conditions – something is enhanced, something becomes obsolete, something is retrieved, and something is reversed. When applied to traditions in modernity, this allows for a nuanced understanding and a dialectic that combines assertion, rejection, reform and synthesis.

As it happens, I came to use the term post-traditional in a related way – somewhat ironically, as a rich trope – to explain how genuine traditions actually continue to live as modernities, with varying degrees of tension, as long as they can adapt to new social circumstances, and shift with the nature of self-identities. Basically, I use post and traditional as equally strong members of a compound. That is, most modernity is an evolving continuation of projects started by tradition. For example, venerable modern vocations – lawyer, doctor, professor etc. – originate from medieval monasteries. Also, many modern Western political and legal ideas have evolved directly from traditional monotheistic teachings. So, in my understanding, to say post-traditional is to simultaneously assert and refute tradition. This opens the door to a middle way approach, which is only possible if one can hold the two extreme positions simultaneously and accept both their mutual cancellation, as well as their sublimation in a forward movement.

Three intended meanings of post-traditional:

  • post-traditional (1) – first reading of post-traditional is genealogical; we live after tradition, which necessarily precedes modernity; contrary to the myth of progress, forward doesn’t mean better, it means forward; to understand modernity, we must understand its origin; to construct a responsive, vibrant modernity, we must digest traditions, and in the case of spiritual traditions, be digested ourselves by them.
  • post-traditional (2) – second reading uncovers the strikingly retro-character of tradition in modernity; namely, we now know that tradition as understood today was more often than not formulated or defined during the advent of modernity, either as response to the perceived threat of modernity, or as commodification of a bastardized tradition, and we even have numerous invented traditions; however, early classical traditions – say 1000 years ago or earlier  – were not a monolithic system but an interplay of relevant actors and factors, not a transmission of something solid from one generation to another; suffice to look at the actual history of any major religion, and we see not a system, which is itself a modernist fetish, but an ecology of streams and tributaries; in short, and this is the ironic reading – we are post-traditional inasmuch as we do away with traditionalist and/or modernist fantasies about the positive/negative character of traditions.
  • post-traditional (3) – third reading suggests a possible way forward, namely to work in ways that differ from avowedly traditional forms of practice – such as monk, cave yogi, lay person – because we live in a different world, and because as social beings we are different selves; this is the only sense in which post signifies breaking away from something; instead, we need to evolve practice-forms both hybrid and novel, responsive to where we’re at,  and deepen such forms in open environments i.e. wherever social and cultural regimes don’t dominate or dictate human interactions.

The refutation and assertion of existing solutions are both necessary when circumstances change significantly, whether in one’s own life, or in society at large. This perhaps makes the whole thing a bit awkward, but that’s just a reflection of how we come to find a way through the confusing disarray of available conceptions and misconceptions around tradition, history, time, origin, continuation and evolution. Immature modernity is rebellious and contrarian, while a more seasoned and maturated modernity finds peace and clarity in relation to its predecessors. My personal relationship to traditional teachings and practices remains somewhat paradoxical but certainly workable – it’s true, something is enhanced, something becomes obsolete, something is retrieved, something is reversed – and forward just means forward.