I think most, if not all, contemporary Buddhists would not disagree that it is important to attune the Dhamma to contemporary circumstances. This is a process that has occurred many times in the history of Buddhism as it migrated into different countries and cultures. In fact, we might say that one reason Buddhism has survived for so long is because it has been able to adapt to different cultures in innovative ways. As Ven. Huifeng and Kim suggest, the adaption of Buddhism in China is one good example.
This process of adaptation--a process of change and transformation--is really a process of innovation, and innovation is necessary if the Dhamma is to maintain its vitality. (Note: innovation should not be confused as embellishment).
Yet, this process has always been described as a kind of 'stripping back'. In the past, various schools and sects in China, Japan, Tibet, etc, have all made the claim that they teach the 'original' teachings of the Buddha, even though their interpretations of the Dhamma are shaped by dialogues with other traditions, philosophies, and practices. Some modern day successors of these schools/sects still make the same claim.
A similar claim is being made for modern Buddhism. This is most evident in scientific interpretations of Buddhism that emerged out of nineteenth century western scholarship. These interpretations still influence contemporary Buddhism. These interpretations are products of our time; they reflect the process of adaptation and change that the Dhamma must inevitably go through. These interpretations of the Dhamma are unique to our historical circumstances. Yet, like those schools/sects of premodern Asia, modern (scientific) Buddhism is making the often repeated claim that it is merely 'stripping back' the Dhamma, rather than 'giving shape' to it.
So it seems to me that a certain habit has persisted throughout the history of Buddhism.
Anyway I think this passage from Donald Lopez Jr's Buddhism and Science raise some interesting points:
Innovation has, of course, occurred in myriad ways over the course of the tradition, but that innovation must always be portrayed as elaboration, as yet another articulation of the Buddha's enlightenment. The content of this enlightenment is not regarded as a vague truth, the ever-receding point of an endless path; the content of the Buddha's enlightenment is described in detail in various Buddhist traditions. It is not, as the Victorian delighted in declaring, that Buddhism has no dogmas. It is perhaps that it has too many.
Yet there is a certain parallel between the Buddha of the tradition and the Buddha of science. The Buddha of the tradition is validated by being the last or, more accurately, most recent in a long line of enlightened beings who have discovered, and taught, the same truth. The Buddha of science is validated not by being the end, but at the origin, as the perfected the person who discovered truths that lesser men would only learn millennia later. For the Buddha of tradition to be valid, he must have understood what others had known long before him. For the Buddha of science to be valid, he must have understood what others did not know and would not know, until long after him.
Each of these visions is profoundly retrospective; each evinces a deep longing for the primordial. The authority of the Buddha of the tradition derives from the fact that he has simply rediscovered eternal truths that the prehistoric buddhas had also found; much of the early literature recounts their lives more than they do his. And the disciples of the Buddha of science derive deep comfort from the thought that modern discoveries in quantum physics were known by the ancient Buddha, so long ago (pp. 138-139).
Lopez's language here is slightly provocative, but I don't think he is belittling Buddhism or the possibility of Awakening as such. I think he is making an important point about how we conceptualise Buddhism. As I have highlighted in the quote above, are we in fact unconsciously longing for the primordial when we repeatedly claim that we are merely ‘stripping back’ the Dhamma or that we have unmediated access to what the Buddha 'originally taught'? In this instance, the primordial is not 'God' or some Divine Essence, but is rather located in conceptuality, in our conceptions of Buddhism.
In doing so, are we unconsciously seeking to secure the ‘self’ on a permanent, fixed conceptual ground—whilst all the while proclaiming that we need to realise that there is no permanent, fixed self?
The challenge, as I see it, is how we might maintain the tradition and translate the Dhamma in innovative ways without clinging too tightly to either of them.