A new World Religion

“Buddhism”—the “great world religion” we have today—was invented in the 1800s. The following ideas—which profoundly shape our practice—date to that century:

  • There is such a thing as “Buddhism”
  • It is a religion
  • It is one religion with several sects
  • It is a “world religion,” with an unchanging essence, suitable for all peoples in all times
  • It is a rational philosophy (and so maybe not a religion after all)
  • It is mainly an ethical philosophy
  • It is mainly about the relationship of the self with the Ultimate Truth, revealed by non-ordinary experience

This “Buddhism” was invented as a competitor to Christianity: just like Christianity, only better: more rational, more ethical, more tolerant, more spiritual.

We’ve been somewhat stuck with this “Buddhism.” It’s the root of what I call the Consensus, or “mainstream Western Buddhism.” But its late-1800s ideology is obsolete, and the imitation/competition thing it’s got going with Christianity is increasingly irrelevant.

I hope we can chuck it.

Understanding its brief history is the first step.

Christianity humbled by Reason

By the mid-1800s, God wasn’t quite dead yet, but his Alzheimer’s was well along. A lot of what He said had stopped making sense. Science showed that much of the Bible was factually wrong, and liberal humanism made many of Christianity’s ethical teachings seem barbaric. Liberal Westerners could only read the Bible selectively, and as allegory. “Reason” had taken over many of the functions of religion.

Why not go whole hog and abandon Christianity altogether? Some did, of course. But most feared that it would lead to nihilism and social breakdown. Without religion, there would be no ultimate meaning to life.

To preserve meaning, progressive Christians carved out three domains as the rightful property of religion, where science could not go:

  • ethics
  • the mysterious, innermost, deep self, which scientific psychology could not penetrate
  • the Infinite, the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth, which was ineffable and therefore not subject to reason

The essence of religion was, on the one hand, to act ethically; and on the other, to cultivate the mystical experience that brings your deep self into the right relationship with the Absolute.

Liberal Christianity was considered the best religion, for several “rational” reasons. Of these, the most important was that it was universal. “Reason” held that what was true, was true everywhere, always. The remarkable thing about the Law of Gravity is that it was the same for all men. Christianity, likewise, was the religion for all peoples everywhere: the only world religion. Judaism and Mohammedanism were merely national religions, of the Jews and Arabs. [In this case of Islam, this claim was absurd; but Islam was the enemy.] Both national religions also were subject to change and decay. The true essence of Christianity was exactly as Jesus had taught it, immutably.

Besides that, Christianity:

  • Was (mostly) rational (or rationalizable)
  • Had an ethical system based on universal principles of benefit and harm, not the insane, vicious taboos of ancient Middle-Eastern goat herders
  • Was socially concerned
  • Was the biggest religion in the world, which proved that it was the evolutionarily strongest, and therefore destined to eventually replace the others

Embarrassingly, however, Christianity had split into numerous sects, and there seemed to be no good way to choose between them. Progressively-minded people came to the opinion that all denominations should be regarded with tolerance, as partial truths, pointing toward the single ultimate truth by different paths.

Perhaps tolerance could be extended even beyond Christian sects. That opened the possibility that something better might be discovered—or constructed. Something with even more of the good qualities Christianity had, without the ugly bits that needed to be explained away.

The discovery of “Buddhism”

Two centuries ago, Europeans considered that there were three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. Also, there was paganism. Christianity was true and just; Judaism and Mohammedanism were false and wicked. Paganism, practiced by savages in vague far-off places, wasn’t really a religion at all. It was an incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals.

Growing world trade brought word that some “Oriental” peoples were less primitive than previously imagined. They showed signs of civilization, worthy of grudging respect.

There came a gradual recognition that the disparate “pagan” customs of various Oriental tribes had something in common. They told similar stories about various gods, named Sommona-Codom, Che-kia, Bootisat, and Bouddoon. Some Europeans guessed that these myths might all have a common origin.

Early translations of scriptures confirmed this. [All those god-names were, in fact, mispronounced names of Shakyamuni Buddha. “Sommona-Codom” is Shramana Gautama, “Che-kia” is Shakya, and “Bootisat” is Bodhisattva.] Not only were these all the same person, but he was supposedly a flesh-and-blood person, whose sayings the scriptures recorded. This was unexpected from paganism.

In fact, the analogy of Buddha to Christ and Mohammed as founders, and the scriptures to the Bible and Koran, was compelling. Apparently some Orientals were not simply pagans, after all. A new religion was announced: Buddh-ism, parallel to Christ-ianity and Mohammed-anism.

Creating the new World Religion

If Buddhism was a religion, then it must be a world religion—because it was the faith of many different nations. That was disconcerting: Christianity was no longer uniquely universal.

Still worse, it was soon discovered that there more Buddhists than Christians. That was dire. Christianity’s numerical superiority had been proof of its evolutionary strength, and therefore its ultimate rightness.

Of course, there were those who welcomed new competition for Christianity. Could Buddhism even be the superior world religion European liberals were looking for?

There was a problem. Buddhism, as actually found in Asia, was much more like the European idea of “paganism” than a “great world religion.” “An incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals” would not be an unfair description.

[I’m afraid I may be accused of political incorrectness here. I hasten to say that I myself practice (at minimum) demon worship and abominable rituals.]

However, there could be found—in odd corners of ancient Buddhist scriptures—the raw materials needed to construct a “world religion” to European specification. (This is probably not true for—say—Shinto or the Yoruba religion.) As one scholar declared in 1854, “Buddhism was not always that decrepit and worn-out superstition that it now appears.”

To get started, the ground had to be cleared, by declaring that what people had practiced in Asia for the past couple thousand years was not really Buddhism. The true Buddhism was the “original” Buddhism, as found in the scriptures. This was the essential, vital core of the religion, common to all sects across Asia—almost entirely buried beneath “local cultural accretions” and “unfortunate mixing with primitive folk beliefs.”

The actual beliefs and practices of Asians were irrelevant, because they did not conform to scripture. Buddhism in the 1800s was declared a “hopeless degeneration” or “unrecognizable corruption” of the true religion.

In fact, Asian Buddhists seemed appallingly ignorant of their own faith. Few even knew the languages of their scriptures. Writing in Sri Lanka in 1860, a British scholar observed that the doctrine of anatta (anatman) “is almost universally repudiated. Even the [Buddhist] priests, at one time, denied it; but when the passages teaching it were pointed out [by white people], they were obliged to acknowledge that it is a tenet of their religion.”

Evidently, it was Westerners who understood the scriptures properly, and Westerners who would define what true Buddhism was. And, they had an agenda. Buddhism was to be universal, rational, ethical, and socially conscious. It would be more scientific than religion; more humane than Christianity; more Protestant than Protestantism; more spiritual—in a good way—than Science.

Buddhist scripture is inconceivably vast. In it, you can find support for almost anything—even the Victorian conception of a superior version of Christianity.

The new world religion: an East-West collaboration

Buddhism was not, and never had been, anything like this fantasy. If the “Buddhism” project had continued exclusively in Europe, it would probably soon have failed, as hostile forces pointed out inconvenient facts.

“Buddhism,” as a “world religion,” was saved by Asian collaborators.

Fortunately, Asian leaders and Western liberals had a shared enemy: evangelical conservative Christianity. And Asian leaders had their own reasons for wanting to radically reform Buddhism.

The legal justification for colonialism, in the 1800s, did not apply to “real nation-states” which had “proper religions.” The framework for international law was the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended a horrific series of religious wars in Europe. The essence of the Treaty was that the ruler of each nation-state had the right to choose its religion, and other nation-states were not to interfere. Regions that were “not real nation-states” and had “no proper religion” were fair game for colonization.

So, reworking “Buddhism” into a “proper religion”—and reorganizing a kingdom into a nation-state—was a way to hold off the colonial powers. Thailand, in particular, was successful with this strategy; I’ll discuss the history in a later post.

Asian Buddhists, at state command, studied Western science, philosophy, and religion. They re-read Buddhist scripture, in dialogue with Western scholars, looking for passages compatible with Western ideas. Then they made large changes in Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Buddhism in Asia partly became the fantasy world-religion of Westerners. Over the past century and a half, it has been made more and more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious.

The best-studied collaboration was the total overhaul of Sri Lankan Theravada by Henry Steel Olcott (an American) and Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhalese) working closely together in the 1880s and ’90s. That is an extraordinary story. (Follow the links for some basics, or the references at the end of this post for details.)

Anagarika Dharmapala also founded the Maha Bodhi Society, in 1891. That was the first “Buddhist” organization in Asia since the destruction of Nalanda University 800 years ago. He brought together Buddhists from many different Asian countries on a shared project. Prior to this, there was almost no awareness of shared heritage or goals among the various Buddhisms.

This East-West collaboration is still going. Contemporary mainstream Western Buddhism is a co-creation of Asians (e.g. HH the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh) and Westerners (e.g. Bernie Glassman and Stephen Batchelor). And, hot damn, it’s more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious than ever.

And, the motivations are partly the same as in the 1800s. The Dalai Lama wants to portray Tibet as a nation-state. If it was a nation-state, then China’s colonization of it would be clearly in violation of international law. Part of being a nation state is having a modern, world-class religion. Thich Naht Hanh created a modern Buddhism as part of an effort to stop the quasi-colonial U.S. war in Vietnam. Bernie Glassman teaches Buddhism as inseparable from social action. Stephen Batchelor writes that the original teachings of the Buddha, as revealed in the scriptures when properly interpreted, are rational, empirical, humanistic, and compatible with modern science.

So what?

My point is not that these changes are illegitimate, or that the new “Buddhism” is necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, I want to point out that “Buddhism” contains large amounts of Western ideology from 150 years ago. Most Western Buddhists wrongly assume this stuff is “timeless Eastern wisdom,” and the essential core of our religion. If instead it’s our own recent history fed back to us, it is open to question.

Here are some questions I will ask later in this blog series:

  • Is it useful to look at “Buddhism” as one thing? (I think not.)
  • Do all the various Buddhisms have anything in common? Is there any essential core? (I think not.)
  • “Buddhism” views meditation as a creating a mystical connection between the deep self and the Absolute. Is this a good way to understand meditation? (I think not.)
  • Are there other, more accurate ways of understanding meditation to be found in traditional Buddhisms? (I think so.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually Victorian-era Western ethics? (I’m still researching this.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually contemporary Western ethics? (Nearly all of it, I think.)
  • Does traditional Buddhism contain any ethical teachings that are both distinctive and valuable? (I haven’t found any yet.)
  • If not, why are we pretending that “Buddhism” is the framework for our ethics? (I have some guesses.)
  • “Buddhism” was invented partly as an antidote to Western secularism and materialism. Is that working? (I doubt it.)
  • Are there other resources, in traditional Buddhisms, that might be better antidotes? (I hope so.)
  • What other dubious Western assumptions have been incorporated into “Buddhism” without our realizing it? (I’m working on it.)

Further reading

This post, and this blog series, were inspired by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

There is a large, rapidly-growing academic literature on the re-making of Buddhism as a “world religion” in the late 1800s. Below are some starting points.

There are three aspects to the creation of Buddhism as a world religion: the activities of Westerners, the activities of Asians, and their collaborations. I find the collaboration the most interesting, but it’s the least-studied so far.

The Olcott-Dharmapala collaboration is discussed by McMahan (pp. 91-101), although he treats the two separately. The classic study is in Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed. Obeyesekere has a talk transcript here. Stephen Prothero’s The White Buddhist is a full book-length treatment; I haven’t read it, but there are excerpts here. There’s an enjoyable short account in Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake. Fields’ book is a history of how Buddhism came to America; it’s fascinating and highly readable.

Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions is excellent for background history on the concept of “world religions” in the late 1800s. It has a full chapter on the invention of “Buddhism” by Europeans; a good overview, although somewhat lacking in specifics.

Philip C. Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism is a detailed study. The title is somewhat misleading, as he emphasizes (p. 12) that the British created, not discovered “Buddhism.” Although fascinating, the book is limited by completely ignoring the aspect of co-construction with living Asian Buddhists.

Charles Hallisey’s “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism,” in Donald Lopez’ Curators of the Buddha is somewhat tiringly academic, but makes some good points about the East-West collaborative construction of modern Buddhism, starting from page 47.

I will discuss the remaking of Japanese Zen and Thai Theravada as “Buddhism, the world religion” in some detail later in this blog series.

The quote about Sri Lankan priests repudiating annata is from R. Spence Hardy’s A Manual of Budhism [sic], In its Modern Development, p. 397.

You can find much or all of the text of the books cited above on-line, via the Amazon “look inside” feature and/or Google Books.


The Heart-Healthy Sutra

The Heart Sutra is my favorite Buddhist scripture. It is profound and beautiful. As Buddhist scripture goes, it’s remarkably concise.

Still, I think it could stand to go on a diet.

Color key (see notes at bottom for further explanation):

  • Dark blue: formulaic stuff that has to go in every sutra
  • Red: advertising hype
  • Orange: meaningless verbiage, padding, filler
  • Light blue: repetition
  • Green: probably just wrong
  • Magenta: “weird Indian stuff”
  • Black: actual content

The (atherosclerotic) Heart Sutra, color-coded

Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas. At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called “profound illumination” and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.

Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?”

Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, “O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.

Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:


Thus, Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita.

Then the Blessed One arose from that samadhi and praised noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, saying, “Good, good, O son of noble family; thus it is, O son of noble family, thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught and all the tathagatas will rejoice.”

When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Shariputra and noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, that whole assembly and the world with its gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

The Heart-Healthy (slimmed-down) Sutra

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. All phenomena are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. In emptiness, there are no sense objects, sense organs, or sensory awareness, and no Four Noble Truths.

Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear.

Hakuin’s Zen Words for the Heart

I would not dare to make fun of the Heart Sutra if it were not for the example of Hakuin Zenji, one of the all-time greatest Zen Masters. His Zen Words for the Heart is a satirical, word-by-word commentary on the Heart Sutra.

For most of the book, Hakuin insults the author of the Sutra as a con man and idiot. Toward the end, you realize that this was a pretense: for Hakuin (as for me) the Heart Sutra is the one essential Buddhist text, for which he has boundless reverence and devotion.

He’s got some good lines:

Profound prajnaparamita? Yeah, right! Bring me some shallow prajnaparamita, then.

Nirvana and samsara? Riding whips carved from rabbit horn.

No eye, no ear, no nose? Well, I have them. They do exist.

It would obviously be fair for someone offended at my treatment of the Sutra to point out “You’re no Hakuin.” Undoubtedly true. But we can’t pretend punk hasn’t happened since then.

How I color-coded the text

Dark blue – Formulaic stuff that has to go in every sutra. Sutras are written in a standard format, as a dialog between the Buddha and some hangers-on. They start by setting the stage for the discussion and end with a return to the setting. Often these bits are much longer. The Heart Sutra was exceptionally short, even before its crash diet.

Red – Advertising hype. Some sutras consist almost entirely of praise for themselves. There are two “very short” summaries of Prajnaparamita, the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Most of the Diamond Sutra is advertising claims. Apparently, hearing a single line of it even once is far better than practicing the Other Leading Brand of religion all day every day for your entire life.

Orange – Meaningless verbiage, padding, filler. Buddhist texts were mostly written by people who had nothing else to do, to be chanted by people for whom chanting texts was a full-time job. The longer the better. Often they seem to have been made to order: “We need four hours worth of verbiage about patience.” Maybe there isn’t four hours worth to say on that topic, so you put in a lot of extra words.

Light blue – Repetition. Another strategy for padding out a text. The Heart Sutra hasn’t got a lot; some Buddhist scriptures just say the same thing over and over, verbatim, for pages on end.

Green – Probably just wrong. Here I follow Hakuin’s commentary. He points out that enlightened people don’t abide “by means” of anything. They just abide. They don’t “transcend falsity”—that would be dualistic. They don’t “attain” anything, because they always already had Buddha-nature. The Tathagatagharba doctrine is that we are all enlightened to begin with, so “enlightenment” as an event reveals what is naturally present, rather than producing something new. Tathagatagharba theory developed after the Heart Sutra was written. It was probably understood intuitively by the author of the Heart Sutra, but the idea wasn’t out there yet explicitly, so s/he stumbled a bit here. [See the comment from Jayarava about this, below.]

Magenta – “weird Indian stuff.” No one knows what the bit about the mantra is in there for. It’s kinda cool, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the Sutra. Some commentators think it was tacked on later by someone else. Kobun Chino Roshi, when asked about the mantra, answered “I don’t know, that’s just Indian stuff.” I personally also don’t know what “the samadhi that expresses the dharma called Profound Illumination” means. It might have a specific meaning that I don’t know, or someone might have just put it in because it sounded impressive. This bit is not found in all versions of the Sutra, and I suspect that it too was added by a later author.

Many bits of the Sutra belong in several categories. (Some lines are formulaic, meaningless, repetitious advertising hype, and so could painted with any of several colors.)

Problems with scripture

Protestant Buddhism” inherits from Protestant Christianity the idea that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority. Many Western Buddhists take this for granted; others dismiss it.

Authority, and the role of scripture, has passed through three phases in Buddhism:

  • Traditional Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; the monastic sangha has ultimate spiritual authority
  • Protestant Buddhism: Scripture is the ultimate authority
  • Politically-correct Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; each individual has ultimate spiritual authority

Scripture in traditional Buddhism

Buddhism is, in theory, a text-based religion. In practice, scripture is almost entirely ignored in traditional Buddhism. Transmission of doctrine and practice is oral, instead. Mostly only monks can read, and usually only a small fraction of them. They read only a handful of selected texts, which are used to prove particular points of doctrine. The vast majority of scriptures are never read by anyone at all. Monastic institutional traditions are the ultimate spiritual authority. (This is similar to the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.)

Problems with scripture as authority

Starting in the mid-1800s, Buddhism was partly reformed in imitation of Protestant Christianity. Scripture was given ultimate spiritual authority.

For this to work, all the following would have to be true:

  1. The Buddha had a complete, correct understanding
  2. The scriptures, as we have them now, are a complete, correct explanation of the Buddha’s understanding
  3. The scriptures are so clear that each Buddhist can read them and form the same complete, correct understanding

All these seem questionable.

The third is particularly unlikely, because Buddhists do not agree about how to read scriptures. There is a problem of interpretation: we know what the text says, but what does that mean? Often texts are highly obscure or ambiguous. (They also often seem insane, idiotic, ethically repugnant, or factually wrong, which needs to be explained away.)

In such cases, who gets to decide what the right interpretation is? It seems that whoever decides, gets to be the ultimate spiritual authority—rather than scripture itself.

Scriptural interpretation in Protestantism

Protestant Christianity faces the same problem with the Bible. Different Protestant Christians have developed different approaches, and this is one of the main issues that divides the Christian world today. Overall, there is no satisfactory solution.

In practice, the winning approach is to deny that there is a problem. The Bible should be read literally. “There is only one literal meaning for each sentence, and everyone can agree on what that is.” That is plainly untrue, but it seems to be the only way to hold onto the non-negotiable Protestant doctrine of scriptural authority. It’s held by most Christian conservatives (with fudges as needed to deal with the most blatant problems).

Conservative (“fundamentalist”) Christianity is doing well. Mainstream Christianity is collapsing. When everyone gets to interpret the Bible for themselves, most people implicitly replace unappealing Christian doctrines with comfortable liberal secular humanist ones. Christianity is gutted; it is reduced to a shell, an outer form whose core has been eaten away by non-Christian beliefs and practices. It has no distinct function, so everyone leaves. (Some of them put a Buddhist shell on their beliefs, and that’s Consensus Buddhism.)

Scriptural interpretation in Western Buddhism

Some Buddhists are scriptural literalists; but that’s rare.

A liberal Protestant approach to scripture dominated Western understanding of Buddhism from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Liberal Christian scholars had developed “sophisticated historical-critical textual analysis methods” which were supposed to reveal the “original meaning” of the Bible. Western Buddhist scholars applied the same methods to Buddhist scripture, expecting that this would reveal the “original intent of the Buddha,” as opposed to the ignorant misunderstandings of later Asian Buddhists. This work has significantly influenced current Western Buddhist interpretations.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many living Buddhist teachers arrived in the West, and their teaching mainly replaced Western scriptural analysis. Also, it turned out that the supposedly “sophisticated methods” were unreliable. Their conclusions have often been shown to be factually wrong using other kinds of evidence. (Some of those mistaken conclusions persist as Western Buddhist myths—but that’s a whole ’nother topic…)

So, most Western Buddhists now either take the traditional approach (Sangha elders provide the correct interpretation based on oral transmission), or believe that each Buddhist has to find a personal understanding. The Protestant approach doesn’t seem to have worked out well for Buddhism in the West.

Individualist egalitarianism

“Consensus” Western Buddhism makes each Buddhist their own ultimate spiritual authority. Everyone takes their own inner journey to find their own truth. Everyone has the right to interpret scripture as they like.

If people actually did that, it might be interesting. I’m not sure what would happen. Probably we’d get a thousand strange new forms of Buddhism, and that would be cool.

In practice, Consensus Buddhists don’t read scripture. It’s difficult, unpleasant work, and mostly a waste of time.

I’ve forced myself to read some. Almost all of it is exceedingly boring. It’s unbelievably repetitive, it takes a full page to make a simple point that could be said in a sentence, and most of it is just silly, one way or another.

And then, there’s large chunks that are hopelessly obscure. Often, oral tradition agrees that they are incomprehensible; no one claims to be sure what they mean.

Occasionally you learn something—but you have to be a masochist.

So mostly we’re back to ignoring Buddhist scripture. (Maybe tradition got that right…) Modern Buddhists’ personal interpretations of Buddhism owe little to ancient texts.

So where’s authority?

But this points up another problem. Politically correct Buddhism gives everyone the right to interpret scripture—but we can’t. The right doesn’t give you the ability. This becomes obvious if you seriously try to read scripture.

On the other hand, a competent teacher can help you make much more sense of scripture than you could figure out on your own.

And that leads to the topic of an upcoming post—the problematic role of teachers in Consensus Buddhism.

Protestant Buddhism

Many Western Buddhists would consider the following ideas obviously true, and perhaps as defining Buddhism:

  1. Everyone can potentially attain enlightenment
  2. Religious practice is your personal responsibility; no one can do it for you
  3. You don’t necessarily have to have help from monks to practice Buddhism effectively
  4. Non-monks can teach Buddhism; celibacy is not essential to religious leadership
  5. Ordinary people can and should meditate; meditation is the main Buddhist practice
  6. Careful observation of your own inner thoughts and feelings is the essence of meditation
  7. Ordinary people can, and should, read and interpret Buddhist texts, which should be available in translation
  8. Ritual is not necessary; it’s a late cultural accretion on the original, rational Buddhist teachings
  9. Magic, used to accomplish practical goals, is not part of Buddhism
  10. Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods or spirits or demons; or at any rate, they should be ignored as unimportant
  11. Buddhism doesn’t believe in idols (statues inhabited by gods)
  12. Buddhist institutions can be useful, but not necessary; they tend to become corrupt, and we should be suspicious of them
  13. Everyday life is sacred

These ideas come mainly from Protestant Christianity, not traditional Buddhism. They are not entirely absent in traditional Buddhism. However, mostly, in traditional Buddhism:

  1. Only monks can potentially attain enlightenment
  2. Religious practice is mainly a public, ritual affair, led by monks; the lay role is passive attendance
  3. There is no Buddhism without monks
  4. Only monks can teach Buddhism, and celibacy is critical to being a monk
  5. Only monks meditate, and very few of them; meditation is a marginal practice
  6. Meditation is mainly on subjects other than one’s self
  7. Only monks read Buddhist texts, their interpretation is fixed by tradition, and they are available only in ancient, dead languages
  8. Essentially all Buddhist practice is public ritual
  9. Much of Buddhist practice aims at practical, this-world goals, by magically influencing spirits
  10. Gods and demons are the main subject of Buddhist ritual
  11. Buddhists worship idols that are understood to be the dwelling-places of spirits
  12. All reverence is due to the monastic, institutional Sangha, which is the sole holder of the Dharma
  13. Everyday life is defiled, contaminating, and must be abandoned if you want to make spiritual progress

Buddhism is still understood and practiced this way in much of Asia.

So what?

I want to call some of the Protestant Buddhist ideas into question. Mostly, I think the “Protestant Reformation” of Buddhism has been a good thing. However, I find some aspects problematic.

My point is not that Protestant ideas should not be mixed with Buddhism, or that we should return to tradition. Rather, I will suggest that some of these ideas don’t work. Buddhists will need to find alternatives.

When Protestant ideas are misunderstood as essential to Buddhism, they cannot be challenged. Knowing they have only been added recently makes it possible to question them.

Most of the rest of this page discusses the history of the merging of Protestant ideas into Buddhism. Near the end, I begin to raise questions about whether it was good thing.

I’ll start by recounting a bit of the history of the Christian Protestant Reformation. Then I’ll look at Buddhism as it was in the mid-1800s, and the motivations for reform.

The Catholic Church before the Reformation

Before the Reformation, priests had a special, irreplaceable spiritual role. Only they could perform the public rituals that are the central religious practices: Mass, confession, extreme unction, and so forth. The Church functioned as intermediaries between lay (ordinary) people and God. Lay people had no direct access to the sacred.

Lay people attended rituals passively. The rituals were performed in Latin, which only priests knew. No one other than priests was authorized to teach the Gospel. The priesthood was (in theory) entirely and necessarily celibate.

The Bible was not available to ordinary people, and it was also written only in ancient dead languages. The interpretation of the Bible was fixed by institutional tradition; the ultimate source of religious authority was the Church itself.

“This world” (life on earth) was seen as defiled. The proper focus of religion was the “next world” (heaven or hell).

Despite that, religion provided this-wordly magical benefits to lay people. Particularly by praying to patron saints, one might receive practical benefits or protection. (There is a similarity between the role of Catholic saints and the many gods and spirits of Buddhism.)

The Church could also provide specific next-world benefits. It sold “indulgences,” which were widely understood as forgiving sins, and getting you out of purgatory, by transferring “merit” from the Church’s account to yours. (The theory of merit transfer is the main basis for lay donations to the Buddhist monastic Sangha. In Buddhism, too, its function is to improve your situation after death.)

The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the wide-spread belief that the Church had become corrupt. It was immensely wealthy. It was seen as more concerned with pursuing money and power than proper religious matters. The selling of indulgences was seen particularly as abusive. The Church also licensed brothels, and instituted a tax specifically on priests who kept mistresses.

Moderate attempts at reform, from within the Church, failed.

The Protestant Christian Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a radical solution: it cut the Church out of the deal altogether. The central theoretical change was to give lay people direct access to God. That eliminated the special role of the Church.

According to Protestantism, each man can be his own priest. The Reformation rejected a separate priestly class, rejected monasticism, and closed monasteries where it could. (Similarly, Protestant Buddhism has extended the word “Sangha” to refer to lay believers as well as monks, and allows lay people to teach.) Protestantism rejected the theory of merit transfer.

According to Protestantism, lay people can access God in two ways: through scripture, and through prayer. It is the right, and the duty, of every layman to own a Bible written in his native language, and to read and understand it. The word of the Bible itself is the ultimate spiritual authority, not the Church’s interpretation of it.

Lay people also accomplish a direct, personal relationship with God, through private prayer. (This is analogous to the role of meditation in Protestant Buddhism. It supposedly gives you a direct connection with Ultimate Truth.) In silent contemplation, one should constantly examine one’s soul for impulses to sin. (This is analogous to the type of meditation in which one attends to ones’ own concrete thoughts and feelings, rather than contemplating often-abstract external matters—the more common practice in traditional Buddhism.)

Because you can have a direct relationship with God, you shouldn’t pray to saints. (Protestant Buddhism deemphasizes or eliminates celestial Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and so forth.)

Protestantism strips magical elements from the sacramental rituals (to varying degrees, according to sect). Ritual is often understood as providing a focus for community and an opportunity for personal experience, rather than being an irreplaceable sacred function.

Protestantism was iconoclastic, meaning that it encouraged the smashing of religious sculptures and paintings, because they were seen as false idols. It also opposed the wearing of priestly “vestments” (special clothes); this is mirrored in Protestant Buddhist contempt for Buddhist robes.

Some strains of Protestantism see everyday life as sacred. There should not be a special part of life set off for religious activity; the faithful should bring religious attention and intention to every part of the day. This is a major theme of Protestant Buddhism, too. It’s not usual in traditional lay Buddhist practice.

Protestant Buddhism

Here’s the Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism‘s take:

Protestant Buddhism… denies that only through the [monastic] Sangha can one seek or find salvation. Religion, as a consequence, is internalized. The layman is supposed to permeate his life with his religion and strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society. Through printing laymen had, for the first time, access to Buddhist texts and could teach themselves meditation. Accordingly, it was felt they could and should try to reach nirvana. As a consequence lay Buddhists became critical both of the traditional norms and of the monastic role.

A classic definition is from Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed:

The hallmark of Protestant Buddhism, then, is its view that the layman should permeate his life with his religion; that he should strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society, and that he can and should try to reach nirvana. As a corollary, the lay Buddhist is critical of the traditional norms of the monastic role; he may not be positively anticlerical but his respect, if any, is for the particular monk, not for the yellow robe as such.

This kind of Buddhism is Protestant, then, in its devaluation of the role of the monk, and in its strong emphasis on the responsibility of each individual for her/ his ‘salvation’ or enlightenment, the arena for achieving which is not a monastery but the everyday world which, rather than being divided off from, should be infused with Buddhism.

Forces for Reformation

The Protestant-style reformation of Buddhism began in Asia, in the 1860s. Protestant missionaries were aggressively preaching Protestant ideas to Buddhists. Some Buddhists accepted key Protestant ideas, while rejecting Christianity overall, and used them to reform Buddhism.

The Buddhist Sangha, like the Catholic Church, was an immensely powerful, rich institution, which naturally opposed change. In both cases, Reformation was possible only due to an alliance among other classes, who were newly increasing in power. It was the same three groups in both cases:

  • Reformation occurred when national rulers centralized state power and built effective bureaucracies. The Church/Sangha previously had secular power equal to, or surpassing, kings. Newly powerful rulers used the Reformation to break the power of the Church/Sangha, and to subordinate it to the state. Once they brought the Church/Sangha under control, they used it to impose a new, homogeneous national culture on the masses.
  • The rise of a new, educated middle class was a key to Reformation. The middle class resented religious taxation, economic competition from the Church/Sangha, and its arbitrary, self-interested economic regulations. Intelligent, literate people also didn’t see why they should be excluded from direct religious practice; especially because much of the priesthood was neither intelligent nor literate nor had any interest in religion.
  • Radicals within the Church/Sangha opposed its corruption, and wanted to return it to a purely religious function.

I’ll write more about this when I look at specific case histories (on Japan and Thailand).

The “Protestantization” of Buddhism has continued in the West in the past half-century. I’ll cover that as part of the recent history of “Consensus Buddhism.”

There are other important Protestant doctrines that have been partly imported into Buddhism. These include God and Christian ethics. I’ll write about God in Buddhism in my post on Japan, and about Christian influences on Buddhist ethics in a whole slew of posts later in this series. (Jeez, I’m issuing a lot of IOUs here!)

Protestant Buddhism: A jolly good idea

Overall, I think the Buddhist Protestant Reformation was a good thing:

  • I am skeptical about merit transfer, and I don’t believe lay people get their money’s worth when they pay for incomprehensible Buddhist rituals
  • I don’t think monks have any intrinsic, exclusive powers; I don’t believe celibacy is dramatically valuable
  • I do think lay people can benefit from personal practice, particularly meditation
  • I think lay people can understand Buddhist scripture, and reading it can be spiritually helpful
  • I don’t believe in magic or spirits (at least not in a straightforward, literal sense); and I think those beliefs can be counter-productive
  • I am wary of religious institutions, which do often become corrupt
  • I do think everything is sacred

Problems with Buddhist Protestantism

I also see some problems in the merger of Protestant ideas into Buddhism. I’ll write about those in my next several posts. A preview:

  • Problems with scripture: who gets to decide what they mean?
  • Problems with priests: “every man his own priest” doesn’t actually work
  • Problems with meditation: what does it really do?

Further reading

There’s a large academic literature that discusses Protestant influences on Buddhism. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a single, comprehensive presentation. This post may be the first attempt to set out parallels between the Christian and Buddhist Protestant Reformations systematically.

This post was prompted by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, in which Protestantism is a major theme.

The term “Protestant Buddhism” was introduced by Gananath Obeyesekere. His book with Richard Gombrich, Buddhism Transformed, has an extensive discussion. Unfortunately, the book considers only Sri Lanka, which is atypical in some ways. Also, they introduce some confusion by using “Protestant” to refer both to ideas imported from Protestant Christianity and to protest against colonialism.

If this post proves “controversial,” I would guess that it is more because of the parallels between traditional Buddhism and the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, than for the parallels between Protestant Christianity and contemporary Western Buddhism.

Protestant-style Buddhist reformers have found quotations from Buddhist scripture that suggest the Protestant ideas have always been Buddhist doctrine. It’s true that they are not entirely alien to Buddhism. However, in practice, they have almost always been marginal, almost everywhere. Buddhist scripture is vast, extremely diverse, and contradictory. You can find quotations in it to support almost anything, especially if you take short pieces out of context.

In any case, you can’t learn about traditional Buddhism, as practiced by lay people, from Buddhist texts. Scripture describes what ought to happen, rather than what does happen; and it is almost entirely about the Sangha, rather than lay people. And, the scriptures were written centuries ago, when things were often quite different.

To learn about traditional Buddhism, you either need to go to Asia and see for yourself, or read anthropology. If you have been to a Buddhist country, and observed lay practice (especially in rural areas where modern influences are least), you will probably recognize my description.

Otherwise, Melford Spiro’s Buddhism and Society is a classic study of Theravada Buddhist practice in Burma, and an excellent starting point. The Gombrich and Obeyesekere book is good for Sri Lanka. For Tibet, I recommend Geoffrey Samuel’s Civilized Shamans. All these books specifically address the nature of lay practice and the relationship between lay people and monks.

If anything in this post prompts incredulity, I will try to provide a citation to a reliable academic source.

Shock or horror I can’t help you with.

Modern Buddhism: Forged as anti-colonial weapon

What we think of as “Western Buddhism” actually began in Asia, in the 1860s. It was invented as a way of fighting back against Western military and religious aggression.

To counter Western threats, Asian rulers forced Buddhism to incorporate many Western ideologies. These include key principles of the scientific worldview and of Protestant Christianity.

That’s a surprising fact; but it is not just the answer to a historical trivia question.

The Buddhisms was have now were created with motivations probably quite different from ours. So it could be good to ask: do those Buddhisms address our current needs? Do we still want all those Western ideologies in Buddhism?

[This is a page in my Crumbling of Consensus Buddhism series. It is a conceptual overview of the next several posts. Those will have much more detail, including facts that support the broad generalizations here.]

The new threat from the West

For centuries, Asian rulers had faced the Western powers as approximate equals. That changed quite suddenly around 1840.

Western technology reached a tipping point. The West invented new military technologies Asia could not defend against: steam-powered gunboats, especially. Industrial manufacturing also gave the West enormous new economic power.

The West sent Christian missionaries around the world, backed with military might. Once a country was mostly converted to Christianity, it was easy to subjugate politically.

The West used this military, economic, and missionary power to “colonize” the rest of the world. That meant reducing entire countries, even most of whole continents, to slavery or near-slavery. Several Asian countries fell. Others fought back, successfully.

Asia could not match the West in technology, military power, or industrial production—although strengthening those was vital. The countries that successfully resisted colonization fought back with ideology as well.

Buddhism was an ideological key to success. But it was not the Buddhism of 1840. It was a series of new, modern, national Buddhisms, created in the later 1800s, by state decree. The Buddhisms we now know were first forged as weapons against Western colonialism.

Modern concepts, Asian values

Westerners themselves said that their power came from ideas. Devastatingly destructive gunboats were not a chance discovery. They were a logical product of technology, which was a logical product of science, which was a logical product of philosophy.

Christianity, a weapon even more destructive than gunboats, was an also ideology—and one that claimed to be justified with science and philosophy.

Clueful Asian rulers were convinced. To compete, they would have to adopt modern, Western concepts. But those were alien to Asian values. Importing them as-is would be difficult and probably disastrous. Instead, they needed to be modified. They would be domesticated. Asia would become part of the modern world, but Asian countries would retain their core social values.

Buddhism was the force they used to domesticate Western ideas.

Modern Buddhism: a four-edged weapon

By forcibly merging Buddhism with key modern concepts, Asian rulers accomplished four goals at once:

  1. Gain direct benefits from useful ideas
  2. Convert the masses from ignorant peasants into an educated industrial workforce
  3. Enlist Western liberals as allies against Western church and state power
  4. Eliminate the potential threat of monastic opposition, and co-opt the monastic sangha as an agent of state power

The Protestant Reformation of Buddhism

Starting in the 1860s, Buddhism was re-formed in ways similar to the Protestant Christian Reformation.

The key Protestant Christian innovation was to give ordinary people direct access to God through reading scripture and private prayer.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was organized for the benefit of the Church. It gave access to God only through public rituals, performed by priests, in Latin, an ancient language only priests could understand. The main religious function of the lay people was to give money to the Church.

Pre-modern Buddhism was organized much like Catholicism. It was good for monks, and parasitic on lay people. Lay people could not meditate, and had no access to Buddhist scriptures, which were written in ancient languages only elite monks knew. Religion was about public rituals, performed by priests, that ordinary people were not meant to understand. The main religious function of lay people was to give money to the monastic Sangha.

In terms of the four-edged weapon:

  1. For most people, the “Protestant Reformation” of Buddhism was a good thing. (It was not so good for monks, maybe.)
  2. Protestant missionaries could easily explain what was wrong with Buddhism’s familiar Catholic-style organization. Their arguments would make obvious sense to lay Buddhists. Reforming Buddhism to give lay people direct access to the sacred refuted the missionaries’ criticisms.
  3. Western governments backed Christian missionaries partly because they “uplifted savages from their local tribal superstitions.” Buddhism in 1840 mostly looked like a bunch of local tribal superstitions. When Buddhism was reformed to look like a “Great World Religion”, one that could compete with Christianity in its own terms, Western liberals were convinced to oppose missionization. They lobbied their governments to restrain the missionaries.
  4. By cutting out the middlemen, the Protestant-style reformation reduced priestly power, in Buddhism just as it had in Christianity.

It’s worth mentioning that the Buddhist struggle against Christian missionaries is still going on in many Asian countries. It seems that Christian evangelism mostly fails in places where lay people are directly involved in Buddhist practice. It succeeds where lay people’s main religious job is to give money to monks.

Rational, scientific Buddhism

Nowadays, Buddhism is often presented as thoroughly rational: it follows logically from sensible first principles. Buddhism is supposed to be, among religions, uniquely compatible with the scientific worldview.

Although this may be true for Buddhism now, it was not at all true in 1840.

Forced rationalization of Buddhism had four benefits:

  1. By giving religious justification to a rational, scientific worldview, Buddhism contributed to Asian industrialization.
  2. Especially, it helped reeducate people as competent industrial workers. You cannot run a modern economy if everyone believes that the world is flat, hell is a cave a few miles under ground, Buddhist rituals cure diseases, and magic amulets sold by monks are the best protection against demons.
  3. Buddhism could now convincingly claim to be more rational and scientific than Christianity. Many Western liberals were persuaded: the West should not colonize or missionize countries with a better religion than its own.
  4. Revealing some Buddhist teachings as absurd superstitions challenged the credibility and ideological power of the sangha. Reducing popular belief in the power of Buddhist magic cut monastic income from protective rituals.

Stay tuned for more

Later in this blog series, I will cover the Protestant Reformation and rationalization of Buddhism in much more detail. I’ll also look at two case studies: Japan and Thailand. Those are the two most important sources for current Consensus Buddhism.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Western Buddhism” is supposed to be inclusive. That is one of its main themes.

It is a big tent, in which we can be one happy family, respecting each others’ differences, yet celebrating the shared essential core of Buddhism, its fundamental unity. There is no need for discord, because the Consensus includes all types of Buddhism—vipassana, Zen, Tibetan, maybe even Pure Land, who knows. We (of course!) don’t discriminate on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, musical preference, blah blah blah.

At the same time, Consensus Buddhism beats itself up for failing to fully include everyone. It is almost entirely white, middle class, and is conspicuously failing to reach people born after the ’60s. The Consensus wrings its hands; moans that “we are trying so hard—why don’t they like us?”; and vows to do better, to try even harder to include everyone.

Meanwhile, it actively excludes Buddhists who do not share its concept of “the shared essential core of Buddhism.”


  • Why does Consensus Buddhism fail when it tries to include “everyone”?
  • Why does it deliberately exclude some Buddhists?
  • If my guess is right that the Consensus is crumbling, why is that?

Some of the answers are found in another question:

  • Why try to include everyone in the first place?

Unity and diversity: counter-culture vs. sub-cultures

Should Western Buddhism be one thing? Or should there be many different Western Buddhisms?

Your answer is likely to reflect the way you think about Western society and culture in general. Here are two views:

  • Counter-culture: Western Buddhism is part of a general progressive movement to reform society, culture, and consciousness. It provides spiritual guidance for that movement, as an antidote to the nihilistic consumer capitalism of the mainstream. Western Buddhism brings inner freedom from unhealthy, negative thinking and emotions. The movement for social justice and a sustainable society will bring outer freedom from the mainstream power-structure, which causes war, poverty, and environmental degradation. For the movement to be successful, it needs to include as many people as possible, by providing an alternative, inspiring, coherent vision. Eventually, right consciousness will spread to the mainstream and the movement will have succeeded.
  • Sub-cultures: There are many Western Buddhisms, which serve different sorts of people, with different values and life-styles. Individual Western Buddhists identify with their particular brand of Buddhism, often as an exclusive tribe. A particular Buddhism is intensely meaningful for its members, but it doesn’t try to be universal; it would seem bizarre and meaningless for most people. Individuals and Buddhist organizations may work for social change, but they may have quite different ideas about what change is wanted, and how to bring it about. Buddhism isn’t an alternative to the mainstream, because there no longer is any mainstream.

I suggest that Consensus Buddhism is based on the counter-cultural model. Ideally, it would like to create a single, inclusive, new Western Buddhism, merging the best bits of all Asian traditions with Western values (such as social equality) and methods (such as psychotherapy). It is based on a supposed essential, shared core of all forms of Buddhism: meditation plus liberal ethics.

Unfortunately, much of Western Buddhist reality is more like the sub-cultural model. For the leaders of the Consensus, this creates an on-going tension or uncertainty. Can they unify all the various Western Buddhisms into a single force? Or is the best they can manage a federation that includes distinct approaches based on different Asian traditions, suitably modernized? I’ll write more on this later, discussing Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, which grapples with that confusion.

In another post, I will suggest that neither model—counter-culture or sub-cultures—is the way forward. They are both already obsolete; the counter-culture ended in 1972-74, and the era of sub-cultures has also passed.

Different kinds of difference

Western Buddhists could be categorized in different ways. Of course, none of these categories are “real”; they are just ways of looking at differences, which might or might not be useful for particular purposes. On this page, I’m concerned with who is included in the Consensus, and who is excluded, and why.

Here are some kinds of differences between Western Buddhists:

  • Schools, traditions, or sects. Western Buddhists might be Theravadins or Nyingmapas or Triratna practitioners. Or they might not belong to any such group.
  • Traditional, modern, or neither. Generally there is a spectrum from traditional to modern. Some groups position themselves at the extremes. Some groups don’t fit on the spectrum and are neither traditional nor modern.
  • Demographic categories. Western Buddhists are black, white, Hispanic, Japanese. Regardless of ethnicity, they may have been born in the West and grown up in Western culture, or they may be recent immigrants whose culture is non-Western. Buddhists may be of any social or economic class. Buddhists may be from any age group.

I’ll discuss how Consensus Buddhism treats each of these types of difference. That will suggest answers to questions about who it includes, and who it excludes, and why.

Including all traditions

In Asia before the mid-1800s, no one thought there was a fundamental unity of dharma. Buddhism was divided into numerous hostile sects.

These sectarian divisions were largely due to historical, political, and cultural differences between Asian regions. Those differences are irrelevant to Westerners.

There is no reason that different Buddhist traditions should be hostile to each other, in the modern world. Moreover, different traditions seem to have different things to offer. Why not drop the artificial distinctions, and take what is best from each?

An attractive idea; but some of the differences between Buddhisms are fundamental, not cultural. Different yanas use quite different methods to accomplish quite different goals, and hold quite different fundamental principles.

These differences should not be suppressed, I think. Different approaches work for different people. These differences should not be a source of rancor, but they also should not be swept under the rug, because they are important to understand. They can be respectfully discussed, without avoidance.

I don’t believe there is any essential, shared core to Buddhism. There is nothing that all Buddhisms have in common. This makes true consensus impossible.

Nevertheless, Consensus Buddhism has been successful at including many modernized Buddhists sects. Multiple branches of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism are well-represented, despite many fundamental disagreements between them. This has been accomplished partly by suppressing important differences. However, the Consensus’ implicit claim to speak for all Western Buddhists is not refuted by exclusion of Buddhist schools.

(Of course, you could pick nits. The non-Zen East Asian schools are mostly missing. But then, those schools don’t yet have many Western adherents. Maybe they will be included once they gain a foothold in the West. Mind you, tens of thousands of Westerners practice Soka Gakkai. But maybe Soka Gakkai “isn’t really Buddhism.” Let’s move along, this could get messy.)

Race, class, gender, culture, country of origin

Including all demographic categories is a shibboleth of political correctness. It reflects the counter-cultural idea that, for The Movement to be successful, it must gather as broad a coalition as possible, with a universal vision. The mainstream has the political and economic power, so progressive change must rely on people power: all races and classes united, marching shoulder to shoulder for freedom and justice.

The Consensus sees itself failing here, and it agonizes about it endlessly and uselessly. This seems to have been a main topic of the recent Maha Teachers Council, a major Consensus gathering. One dissident attendee wrote:

The agenda of the conference seems to have been almost entirely concerned with social issues rather than with teaching Buddhism. I am left with the impression that for many of the people here Buddhism and “social justice” equate. (link)

[It was] essentially an ideological exercise in which large group pressure was mobilised to get one to identify with a liberal American agenda only distantly related to Buddhism. (link)

Jack Kornfield, one of the main architects of the Consensus and an organizer of the Council, was interviewed about it:

Kornfield admitted disappointment that the gathering had no representatives of Asian Buddhist temples, which are some of the oldest and largest in the U.S. and largely serve immigrant communities.

“There is still a pretty big divide between temples and teachers whose communities are of immigrants and those who are called convert Buddhists. I don’t know how to address this,” he said.

From a sub-cultural point of view, this makes no sense. Of course active exclusion is wrong. But immigrants doing their own thing is a problem only if you think “Buddhism in America” should be a single movement. Different Buddhisms will naturally appeal to people with different values, life-experience, and interests.

Soka Gakkai (SGI) is a case in point. It is unusual in appealing to blacks and Hispanics, and is popular among the working class. It’s definitely not part of the Consensus, and I doubt the Consensus has tried to draw it in. The Consensus thinks Buddhism is meditation plus Western liberal ethics. SGI doesn’t teach meditation, and might look ethically dubious to Western liberals. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it—but I’m white, meditate, and don’t have working class or Asian values. That’s the point: SGI is a subculture, and trying to include the people it attracts in a counter-cultural vision won’t work. If you say “they aren’t really Buddhists, SGI has no meditation,” you exclude almost all traditional Asian Buddhists (essentially none of whom ever meditated).

The Consensus also excludes people who aren’t politically correct. “Yeah, well, we don’t want them anyway,” might be a Consensus reply. But I would guess this is a main reason Asian Buddhist immigrants are uninterested. They tend to be politically and socially conservative. They may be appalled by permissive sexual ethics and liberal disdain for authority and tradition. Does that make them bad people? Not “really” Buddhists?

There are plenty of white people who find Consensus political correctness offensive, too. Most think Buddhism is just another flavor of p.c. junk, and jeer at it. Some find a home in a Buddhist subculture that respects other Western value systems. (I, for instance, am mildly politically incorrect, which is accepted in my adamantly subcultural, non-p.c. Buddhist lineage. Phew!)


During the 1960s and early ’70s, there was a unified youth counter-culture, and Buddhism was an aspect of it. During the ’80s, youth culture split into numerous sub-cultures, and numerous Buddhist sub-cultures emerged.

The counter-cultural vision tends to be appealing to people whose worldviews formed in the ’60s and ’70s. The sub-cultural view tends to seem natural to people whose worldviews formed in the ’80s. (Of course, there are lots of exceptions to both.)

Consensus Buddhism doesn’t seem appealing to many people born after the ’60s. Its counter-cultural vision may be part of the reason.

I wrote a little about this a couple years ago. I’ve been thinking about it hard since then. Later in this blog series, I suggest that a series of deep shifts in Western culture, since 1960, have repeatedly re-shaped Buddhism; and I’ll guess about what they imply for the future.

Modern vs. non-modern

There is a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern Buddhisms. The Consensus represents the modernist extreme. If you can tick all the boxes of the p.c. modern value system, you’re in.

The Consensus formed in the early ’90s, and started to lose its grip in the mid- to late 2000s. During that reign, groups got pushed toward traditional and modernist extremes. In the ’80s, and again now, it is easier to be somewhere in the middle, or off the spectrum altogether (neither modern nor traditional). I have described this effect as an oppressive duopoly.

There is a huge marketing advantage in belonging to the Consensus. Partly this is the deliberate activity of the Consensus as an alliance. The Consensus controls access to major Buddhist magazines and book publishers. If you sign up for the Consensus, famous Consensus personalities will write endorsements on the back of your books, which helps sales. They can give marketing strategy advice, which was invaluable during the ’90s and early 2000s—before their approach stopped working.

The other advantage of being totally modern is that it’s a simple, coherent packaging that makes sense to modern people. If your product is mostly modern, but has some discordant traditional features, you have to explain why they are absolutely necessary to your brand of Buddhism. That’s hard.

Like, you mostly seem modern, except your priests wear traditional robes. Well, that’s bogus, isn’t it! That’s some Asian thing. It’s just cultural, right? Because there couldn’t be any deep, universal meaning to a particular style of clothing. Anyway, priests aren’t anybody special, right? They’re just ordinary people who have read more books about Buddhism than I have. By wearing fancy duds you’re pretending to be better than the rest of us. That isn’t nice, because in America we know everyone is equal.

If you hear enough of that, it’s really tempting to scrap the robes, even if they do have a profound, irreplaceable meaning within your system.

Some newcomers to Buddhism quickly see through the superficiality of the Consensus approach. They figure out that Westernizing Buddhism throws away much of what is valuable in it. So then they search for the “most authentic” brand available. “Authenticity” then gets confused with tradition—because that’s the line Asian Buddhisms have alway taken. This puts groups in competition to be maximally traditional, which may involve retaining (or recreating) Asian cultural forms that actually don’t function well for anyone.

Although extreme modernism and extreme tradition may work well for some people, my guess is that most would be better served in the middle.

And I feel even more strongly that the traditional/modern spectrum is actually bogus altogether. The Buddhisms that are most likely to work in the future will be neither traditional, nor modern.

The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has changed the way I think about Buddhism more than any book I’ve read in years. I think it’s destined to be an influential classic.

It’s a history of how and why “Western Buddhism” came to be what it is. That casts new light on what “Western Buddhism” is, and raises new questions about whether that’s what we want.

My understanding of this book is the main basis for this blog series. (Of course, I use other sources too, and of course McMahan might disagree with everything I say.) This is not a general review. Instead, I will explain some parts of the book that are relevant to my own project.

Traditional Buddhism is very unlike Western Buddhism

Most Western Buddhists don’t realize how different even the most traditional and “authentic” forms found in the West are from traditional Asian Buddhism. Once this is understood, questions arise: where did modern Buddhism come from? Why? What is it good for? Is it legitimate? What are the implications of its differences from tradition?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism starts with a series of four portraits of typical Buddhists in Asia and in the West. It explains their understanding of Buddhist theory and practice. These portraits are devastatingly accurate; and very funny, because of the total disconnect between the traditional Asian and Western Buddhists. If you have not spent time in Asia, with traditional Buddhists, this chapter may come as a shock; and is certainly worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book.

Briefly: Westerners take for granted that meditation is a main Buddhist practice, and that reading and understanding Buddhist texts is another. Traditionally, in Asia, almost no one ever meditated, and almost no one ever read religious texts with the intention of figuring out what they meant. This was true even in monasteries, never mind lay communities. In traditional Asia, virtually all Buddhist practice is aimed either at accumulating merit in order to have a better next life; or at influencing assorted gods and demons, whose actions have practical consequences for one’s health and wealth.

Much of “Western” Buddhism was developed in Asia by Asians

It is startling how much of “Western” Buddhism was invented in Asia, before 1950—before there was much Western interest in Buddhism. McMahan suggests, therefore, that we talk about “Buddhist modernism” rather than “Western Buddhism.”

On a later blog page, I will summarize some of this history, concentrating on modernist Theravada and Zen, and drawing on the historical research of Gil Fronsdal and Brooke Schedneck as well as David McMahan.

Modernist Buddhism hybridizes tradition with Western ideologies

McMahan explores in detail the way Buddhism has been altered to incorporate three major Western ideologies:

McMahan treats two other Western systems in less depth:

  • Psychology and psychotherapy
  • Political ideals: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, social justice

What I found most startling and useful in the book was seeing how deeply these five ideologies have been “read back” into Buddhism, so that they are mostly overlooked, and taken to be traditional Asian products.

Later in this series, I will go into more detail about the influences of each of these Western ideologies on Buddhist modernism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas

Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?

The five Western ideologies are also not altogether alien to Buddhism. They do resonate with some aspects of Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist modernism, those resonating aspects are highlighted, while parts of Buddhism that contradict Western ideas are suppressed. Quoting McMahan:

This “taking up” of selected elements of a tradition in the context of another tradition is how religions develop, adapt, change, and come to occupy different ideological niches from the ones they evolved in. The taking up and development of Buddhism in the context of [Western ideologies] has created a new Buddhism, a hybrid that is adapted to all [of them] and is able to both complement and criticize them. (p. 116)

Buddhist modernism is attractively familiar

Buddhist modernism has been successful because it makes sense to Westerners.

That’s not surprising: much of it is our own culture, repackaged and passed back to us.

Familiar ideas about individual access to ultimate truth (a core theme of Protestantism), social justice, and emotional health are dressed up with Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan words, and supported with highly selective quotations from Buddhist scripture. That makes them intriguingly exotic, yet comfortably unthreatening.

The West has its own powerful critiques of each modern ideology

The ideologies that were mixed into Buddhist modernism are each problematic. There are powerful Western critiques of each of these five Western ideas.

When these ideologies are disguised as “timeless Eastern wisdom,” we may accept them uncritically. Repackaging questionable Western theories as Buddhism might get them past filters when they shouldn’t.

New forms of Buddhism address new problems

It’s useful to think of each new form of Buddhism as trying to solve particular problems that crop up in a particular place and time.

Much of Buddhist modernism developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Asia, to solve major Asian political problems. Western military power threatened colonial domination, and the influx of Protestant Christian missionaries threatened to replace Asian cultures. Buddhist modernism was created largely to help fight off these threats.

That motivation is irrelevant to us now. It’s worth asking how Buddhism has been shaped by anti-colonialsm, and whether a religion created with that agenda is still a good fit.

More recently, Buddhism in the West has developed in response to other problems. One is the widespread loss of faith in Christianity, potentially leading to the “disenchantment of the world,” a sense of meaninglessness, and nihilist despair and rage. Another was a series of political and social crises, addressed by the “engaged Buddhist” movement.

It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)

It is worth asking whether Buddhism is an effective way of addressing current political and social problems. (I’m not sure, but I doubt it.)

It is worth asking, what other problems might Buddhism help with now?

What kind of Buddhism do you want?

I think that Buddhist modernism is on the whole a good thing. But I can’t swallow it whole.

For each of the five Western ideologies that Buddhism has incorporated, I will point out ways I find them problematic, in Western terms.

I will also sketch some extremely tentative ideas about how Buddhism may develop in the world we live in now. It’s a world that has some new spiritual problems, emerging in the past couple decades, which we’re only beginning to recognize. I’ll point out some of those, and suggest ways Buddhism might be relevant.