The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Summary

We may be at a momentous turn in Buddhist history.

Since the early 1990s, “Buddhism” in the West has been defined in a narrow, peculiar way.

Narrow: Consensus Western Buddhism has actively suppressed competing alternatives. This was a deliberate policy, and its success was a striking political accomplishment on the part of the creators of the forced consensus.

Peculiar: it is almost unrecognizably different from traditional Buddhism in Asia. (Its relationship with Asian Buddhism is complicated; I will sketch some of its history, which helps explain its present, and suggests future directions.)

In this blog series, I suggest that Consensus Western Buddhism has been bad for two reasons:

Doesn’t work for most people: it is based on a worldview and values that appeal only to a particular social group. Roughly, the “green” market segment of the Western middle-to-upper-middle class (“Bobos,” “LOHAS“), mainly from the Baby Boom generation.

Suppressed alternatives: the manufactured consensus has marginalized other Buddhist approaches that could have been useful to a broader range of people. The main problem with the consensus is its hegemonic rule.

Fortunately, it appears that the consensus is starting to break down.

“What next?” seems the critical question now. There are two parts to this: how will the Consensus react, and how can those of us outside it be helpful?

The natural reaction of a hegemonic consensus, when it perceives that it is losing its grip on its boundaries, is to try to preserve itself via force. It would be nice to think that Buddhists would not do this. The impermanence of the self is supposedly central to Buddhism—let it go! Buddhist history is not encouraging on this point, unfortunately. Buddhist establishments have frequently suppressed dissent with force.

Still, I am hopeful that the Western Buddhist establishment will recognize the irony, and will be willing to let go their grip. But only if they see a workable alternative future.

For those of us outside the Consensus, its new weakness is an opportunity to promote our own alternative agendas. And, frankly, we may want to actively encourage its collapse.

But we have a bigger responsibility: not only to our particular outside-consensus lineages, but also to ensuring the survival of Buddhism period. That means developing a broad view of what Buddhism now is, how it got that way, and they ways it can work over the next few decades.

The creators and enforcers of the Western Buddhist Consensus are trapped inside their own narrow worldview, and cannot see out. Some of them now realize that, and they are actively groping in the dark for the ways out of their cell. Suggestions shouted from outside may help.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

8 thoughts on “The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Summary”

  1. I guess I question if there ever really was anything resembling consensus. How do you measure consensus? The books being published? The podcasts being produced? Not just Shambhala Sun and Tricycle I hope.

  2. Writing in a hurry means I probably wan’t clear about which things I imagine there was a consensus about. I hope the next page I post (probably to be titled “Nice Buddhism”) will clarify that.

    I could certainly be wrong! I hope you will explain why you think I am, if you still do after reading the definition page.

  3. I see traditional Buddhist paths (which I assume you mean to be ‘consensus’), but also a lot happening off these paths in the woods, so to speak, and no one stopping those things from happening so I’m not clear yet what your focused on. If more people are drawn to the traditional or drawn more to the non-traditional, where’s the problem? There are no Buddhist police. Within any approach there is perhaps policing, but again where’s the problem once one has selected a specific approach?

    The issue from my perspective pertains to finding teachers in-the-know; accomplished practitioners sharing, teaching, etc rather than charlatans. It’s extremely difficult for a novice, one not-in-the-know, to ascertain the qualities of a teacher/guide. Many therefore may be conservative in their selection, for example going a traditional route. I see no problem there. It’s easier to go rogue after finding ones feet on a path.

    Just some random thoughts.

  4. Hi Minding,

    By “Consensus” I mean actually a modern (not traditional) form of Buddhism, developed in the 1980s by American Baby Boomers.

    I’ve suggested elsewhere that the Consensus did police Buddhism in America, quite successfully at its peak of power in the 90s. It still attempts to, much less successfully now. My two posts about the book One Dharma would be good starting points for reading about that.

    I agree that finding a good teacher is difficult and important. Unfortunately, traditionalism is no guarantee. Some highly-accredited traditional teachers have turned out to be serial sexual abusers, mainly in it for the money, insane, or just plain unqualified (not understanding their own traditions very well).

    You might find interesting my posts about sticking to a spiritual path and exploring off the path. Both can be useful! As you say, going a fair way with one path first seems like a good idea.

  5. Thanks David. I took a look at your posts and still come away confused about your purpose for writing all this. I am perhaps dense and certainly mean no offense when I say I don’t see things the way you describe them. If I say I’ve been a practitioner for a very long time, will you lump me in the category of people who subscribe to the consensus you describe? I I say I am relatively new to the path, will you say clearly that’s why I don’t understand your points?

    I see ways that Buddhism has suffered coming to the West, but upon closer study it has suffered culturally in every culture to which it has been introduced. I have known teachers who should not have been in that role for a variety of reasons. Again this is not new; over 2500+ years this continues to be a feature of cultures everywhere.

    The evolution of Buddhism has been a fascinating study as have the various approaches and interpretations of the teachings. Two things are essential: Preservation of the teachings in their most pure form and commitment to the pursuit of freedom. There are a number of people accomplishing the first and the result is found in places like Amazon and TBRC and from the realized teachers from a number of traditions.

    As to the second, I’m reminded of a teacher I had many years ago who would frequently remind his students, “More sitting is called for.”

    Kind regards.

  6. If I say I’ve been a practitioner for a very long time, will you lump me in the category of people who subscribe to the consensus you describe? I I say I am relatively new to the path, will you say clearly that’s why I don’t understand your points?

    No, I wouldn’t say either of those things! Neither has anything to do with having the Consensus view. Beginners and long-time practitioners may have it, and both may not have.

    I’m not altogether clear about what you find confusing. My motivation is to open up room for alternative contemporary forms of Buddhism. I point out ways the Consensus is an obstacle to new developments (and existing, suppressed alternatives). I also try to show why the Consensus is attractive for many people, and why it is unworkable for many others.

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