We now have a global network, where English language is used as a primary language and American culture has its own culture codes (you saw that rainbow flag, etc). Shouldn't Buddhist texts be rewritten with the goal of being easily understandable? If texts use modern vocabulary and describe our surroundings with everyday words, then the spreading of Buddhist ideas will be wider than it is now.

  • Hello and welcome to Buddhism.SE, have you read the guide to new members? I don't have a huge problem with the question, but I suspect this would invite largely opinion based answers. Perhaps you could suggest some specific changes you'd like to see in Buddhist texts, that would keep it confined to a limited discussion of merits and demerits?
    – Buddho
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 4:55
  • This is a problem every religion grapples with - purity vs popularity. I think Buddhism has done okay so far, though there are some esoteric sects that most Buddhists would have trouble recognizing as Buddhism. Perhaps you are comparing it to Christianity, which has certainly traveled a lot, adapting where it goes, but the religion of the desert fathers, for example, bears little to no resemblance to modern Christianity, and that is the danger.
    – Buddho
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 5:00

4 Answers 4


I think this is already happening but we perhaps don't recognise it. While I've not heard of any move to completely rewrite a Buddhist canon, it is easy to find examples of books that help the reader access Buddhists texts. These could be simple primers, commentaries or retelling of traditional stories.

Breath by Breath is an example example of the extension of the commentarial tradition of Buddhism. Larry Rosenberg picks apart the Anapanasati Sutta and really goes into each stage. I've read this twice and find it extremely useful

The anapanasati sutta isn't the only modern commentary. There's a lot more. Analayo has written Satipatthana The Direct Path to Realization which is a commentary on the Satipatthana Sutta. It's a real drill down into the sutta and is a bit more thorough and analytical than Breath by Breath.

But you don't need to get all academic to enjoy Buddhists texts. My 4 year old daughter loves the Jataka Tales as retold in the Buddha at Bedtime. It's a modern simplified version of canonical Buddhist texts - with lovely pictures and a summary from a cartoon Buddha at the end of each one. What's not to like.


In all religions with written texts, it's important these are preserved and available: changing them (e.g modernizing) is very risky.

Some authors do make translations with the aim of modernizing some texts (think of the many Tao te Ching books adapted to a certain modern subject). In the end, it's a trade off where the author invariably puts his own interpretation forward -- which is necessary in this process. So the resulting text might be more accessible, but at the risk of losing or distorting the original content.

This might be ok or not depending on the text. For example, bibliographical episodes are frequently retold in different ways, and oral tradition has a tendency of add colors to them. For the purpose of storytelling, inspiration, etc. this is fine (the ones who will have a hard time with these are probably historians trying to get to actual events) but doctrinal texts raises concerns.

Because of this risk, modernized translations of doctrines whose originals are not precisely clear are very susceptible to criticism, and could create more problems than help.

For example, in buddhist texts, many translators use the english translation "internal and external feeling", even though an alternative translation like "one's feeling and another's feeling" could be used, apparently without loss of information (i read this translation from pali is fine). But traditionally people used the former, and it's believed this form carries important nuances about the philosophical forms used in this period.

The standard alternative is to write about the subject (not a translation, but an explanation) or write exegesis around the originals, using modern vocabulary to explain them in detail, which explicitly points out what the original is, and where the author is driving his own interpretation.


Buddhism has so far struck a pretty good balance of cultural assimilation versus tradition wherever it has traveled. The thing with Buddhism is there is no central power figure like the Pope, so if the followers in a part of the world believe they need to fine tune the religion to suit their needs they don't need anyone's permission. In fact since Buddhism is constantly evolving without great hue and cry we may not notice it.

Religions with a central authority figure can theoretically respond very powerfully to changing circumstances since a diktat from above must be respected by all. In practice we see that since such changes often require great courage and conviction from the top, they rarely happen.

A decentralized religion like Buddhism often makes changes pretty quickly, but hardly anybody has the power or authority to make it widespread.

Both ideas are good in their own way.

For example, compared to the momentous effort that was the introduction of liberation theology in Catholicism, changes of similar import like Engaged Buddhism happen all the time in Buddhism without raising eyebrows.

I will list here a few selected changes, though there are too many to list here.

1. John Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness based stress reduction

John Kabat-Zinn's secular mindfulness based stress reduction program is one such independent offshoot of Buddhism, where the word Buddhism isn't even mentioned. It is administered in a hospital and academic setting, which is very appropriate, harking back to the roots of Buddhism where the monasteries were originally called Viharas or Universities. The Buddha himself is often noted to be like a physician diagnosing and prescribing medicine for the mind.

2. The Dalai Lama's engagement with science and technology

The Dalai Lama is involved in bringing western scientific concepts into Buddhism with his involvement with several academics and by creating organizations like the Mind and Life Institute.

I have often remarked to my Buddhist colleagues that the empirically verified insights of modern cosmology and astronomy must compel us now to modify, or in some cases reject, many aspects of traditional cosmology as found in ancient Buddhist texts.
~H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama

I think it is not just Buddhism that must adapt to the modern world, but the modern world that must come to terms with the wisdom of ancient traditions like Buddhism which place great emphasis on empathy and compassion to nature and to humanity.

As the Dalai Lama again says,

Purely from the scientific point of view, the creation of nuclear weapons is a truly amazing achievement. However, since this creation has the potential to inflict so much suffering through unimaginable death and destruction, we regard it as destructive. It is the ethical evaluation that must determine what is positive and what is negative. Until recently, this approach of segregating ethics and science, with the understanding that the human capacity for moral thinking evolves alongside human knowledge, seems to have succeeded.

Today, I believe that humanity is at a critical crossroad. The radical advances that took place in neuroscience and particularly in genetics towards the end of the twentieth century have led to a new era in human history. Our knowledge of the human brain and body at the cellular and genetic level, with the consequent technological possibilities offered for genetic manipulation, has reached such a stage that the ethical challenges of these scientific advances are enormous. It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power. Yet the ramifications of these new findings and their applications are so far-reaching that they relate to the very conception of human nature and the preservation of the human species. So it is no longer adequate to adopt the view that our responsibility as a society is to simply further scientific knowledge and enhance technological power and that the choice of what to do with this knowledge and power should be left in the hands of the individual. We must find a way of bringing fundamental humanitarian and ethical considerations to bear upon the direction of scientific development, especially in the life sciences. By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call "secular ethics" that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power - principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers, and followers of this religion or that religion. I personally like to imagine all human activities, including science, as individual fingers of a palm. So long as each of these fingers is connected with the palm of basic human empathy and altruism, they will continue to serve the well-being of humanity. We are living in truly one world.

3. Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.

When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves. That was the birth of Engaged Buddhism.

Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.

And this message of Engaged Buddhism is a wake up call for many who would like nothing better than to retire to a mountain top and meditate all day.

John Malkin: People often feel that they need to choose between being engaged in social change or working on personal and spiritual growth. What would you say to those people?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think that view is rather dualistic. The practice should address suffering: the suffering within yourself and the suffering around you. They are linked to each other. When you go to the mountain and practice alone, you don’t have the chance to recognize the anger, jealousy and despair that’s in you. That’s why it’s good that you encounter people—so you know these emotions. So that you can recognize them and try to look into their nature. If you don’t know the roots of these afflictions, you cannot see the path leading to their cessation. That’s why suffering is very important for our practice.

4. The Revival of lay meditation in the Vipassana movement in Burma

Ledi Sayadaw and Mingun Sayadaw are credited with reviving contemplative Buddhism in Burma as a response to British Colonial rule. By bringing meditation outside monasteries to laity the meditative practices survived the British suspension of state support for monasteries. Since lay people couldn't be expected to spare the time to master the jhanas the new emphasis on khanika-samadhi or dry-insight as a route to enlightenment was revolutionary. This very accessible meditation technique has spread widely across the world and is the basis for almost all popular Western meditation in the insight tradition. Here's an essay from Tricycle magazine by Erik Braun, who also has a book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw

In less than 75 years, from 1886 to the mid-1950s, meditation had grown from the pursuit of the barest sliver of the population to the duty of the ideal citizen.


Shouldn't Buddhist texts be rewritten with the goal of being easily understandable?

An effort to make Dhamma more accessible has be done by Piya Tan: http://www.themindingcentre.org/dharmafarer/

Buddhism should also be in a language which is not commonly used (Pali) to preserve the meaning and teaching. In a used language the meaning of words continuously change.

If texts use modern vocabulary and describe our surroundings with everyday words, then the spreading of Buddhist ideas will be wider than it is now.

Best way to teach definitely is terms and language familiar to an audience. (pariyāya,dassāvī) See: (Dhamma,desaka) Udāyī Sutta

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