Traditional and modern Buddhism: an illusory duopoly

Buddhism in the West has settled into two main camps: traditional and modern. They now coexist peacefully, but both actively suppress the alternatives that are neither traditional nor modern.

I think traditional and modern approaches are both unworkable, in ways that may lead to their extinction in this century. That means other alternatives are critical if we want Buddhism to survive.

Traditional and modern: underlying questions and answers

“How should Buddhism be? Why should it be that way?”

Traditionalism and modernism are ways of answering those questions.

The traditionalist answer is: “It has always been our way. It was set up that way by Shakyamuni Buddha. Other versions of Buddhism are degenerations, caused by people changing the original form. They mixed it with other religions, added their own made-up stuff, or only got part of Buddha’s message, or they garbled it. We’ve got the complete, original thing.”

There are two problems with this:

  • Why should we believe that the original thing is the best? Couldn’t some changes be improvements? Unless you believe Buddha is God, there’s no reason to think he got everything right.
  • Factually, all claims to originality are false. We don’t know what the earliest form of Buddhism was like, because its texts were lost. We do know for sure that it was different from any current form.

Modernism tries to answer “why should Buddhism be our way?” by appealing to general, abstract principles:

  • It’s rational/scientific
  • You can verify it by using your intuitive, true self to connect directly to ultimate reality
  • It is based on universal principles of ethics and justice
  • It harms no one and seeks to benefit all beings (by being very nice)

This has two similar problems:

  • Not everyone accepts such principles.

Many people reject scientific rationality. Many people don’t think there is any way to get special access to reality. Many people doubt the universality of ethical and justice claims. Many people don’t want to be saints.

  • It probably isn’t true that modernist Buddhism can be justified according to such principles.

Claims that Buddhism is (or can be) rational or scientific seem dubious. Meditation is a great thing, but it probably has nothing to do with intuition, a supposed true self, or “ultimate reality.” Buddhism doesn’t seem to have anything more to do with justice than any other religion does. If you want to benefit people, Buddhism isn’t the most obvious place to start.

Forming a duopoly

Traditionalism and modernism are naturally opposed to each other:

  • “Modernized Buddhism is fake, inauthentic, and immoral,” says traditionalism.
  • “Traditional Buddhists are superstitious, patriarchal, waste their time on meaningless rituals, don’t do anything practical to help the oppressed, and mostly don’t meditate,” says modernism.

Currently, in the West, neither has enough political power to suppress the other. So, somewhere around 20 years ago, they made an implicit truce. In public, they mostly avoid dissing each other. (This is part of the Western Buddhist Consensus: “we must make respectful gestures toward traditional Buddhists, although privately we think they’re terribly wrong.”)

Mixing traditional and modern

Many Buddhist groups are both traditional and modern, mixing elements of each, and using both traditional and modern justifications. This creates a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern. Such mixtures are probably more widely useful than either extreme. I explain in a later post that the political power of the Consensus, plus market dynamics, have made it more difficult to occupy this middle ground.

Neither traditional nor modern

In the 1980s, the duopoly had not yet formed, so there was a much greater freedom to experiment with alternative approaches than in the 1990s.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training (which was my gate into Buddhism) is an excellent example.

  • Shambhala certainly was nothing like any tradition. In fact, its founder said it wasn’t Buddhism at all, but a “secular path of meditation”—although it could also have been described as “Dzogchen without compromises.” Its outer form was borrowed from Werner Erhard’s “est” seminars.
  • On the other hand, Trungpa Rinpoche made no attempt to justify Shambhala in terms of modern principles. It isn’t rational or scientific. It has strange rituals that have no explanation, it invokes “ancestral war gods” as invisible helpers and ideals, and it manipulates energy in ways materialists might be uncomfortable with. Its teachings on “enlightened society” are based on “natural hierarchy” and the glory of kings. It’s not particularly nice, and Trungpa Rinpoche certainly wasn’t nice at all.

Shambhala Training worked extremely well for me, and for thousands of other people. But it couldn’t survive the imposition of the duopoly unchanged.

The two sides are united in their condemnation of possibilities that are neither traditional nor modern:

  • For traditionalists, third alternatives are also inauthentic and immoral.
  • For modernists, third alternatives also fail to accord with their high principles.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s successor has revised Shambhala to make it both more traditional, and more modern. He’s added a lot of traditionalist Sutric teachings (which seem to me incompatible with its Dzogchen roots). He’s also worked to make it “more accessible” or user-friendly, which I suspect involves de-emphasizing anything that contradicts modern principles.

A new opening for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhism?

Traditional and modern Buddhists divvied up control of the Buddhist media (magazines and book publishers) between them. From the early 1990s until recently, it was difficult for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhists to get heard. For various reasons—including the internet—that’s changing.

In this blog series, I’m suggesting that the duopoly is starting to lose its grip. Exhibit A would be Brad Warner. He is neither traditional nor modern:

  • He is against hierarchy and institutions.
  • He doesn’t think “because we’ve always done it that way” is any sort of justification.
  • He rejects Zen’s traditional origin myth (about a continuous line of transmission via Mahākāśyapa).
  • His teaching stories draw on current pop culture, not ancient history.
  • He goes out of his way to avoid appearing holy.

On the other hand:

  • He isn’t nice, and he wants to keep psychotherapy and New Age stuff out of Buddhism.
  • He gets his answers from a very strange book written by some guy who died 750 years ago.
  • He performs complicated rituals with hours of chanting in Japanese, wearing a traditional monk costume with a ridiculous bib that makes him look like he’s about to eat a lobster.

Alternative answers

I suspect that there have long been many little-known approaches to Buddhism that were neither traditional nor modern. To help loosen the duopoly, it would be good to make a list of them. Can you help? Please post examples in the comment section, below.

Other approaches will have different answers to “why should Buddhism be that way.” Here are some alternatives to “because Buddha said so” and “because of our universal principles.”

“Because it works.”

As an engineer, I like this answer a lot, and it seems to have new resonance recently. The Buddhist Geeks site often invokes this principle—naturally enough! Daniel Ingram, often interviewed there, has particularly championed it.

There’s an emerging “pragmatic dharma movement,” opposed to both traditionalism and modern Consensus Western Buddhism. It’s against ritual, hierarchy, institutions, and Asian cultural influences; it favors rationality, secularism, transparency, and popular Western culture. On the other hand, it’s also against niceness, psychotherapy, New Age junk, and talks about a return to original, core techniques that come out of ancient scriptures.

If there seems to be a lot of “against” in that, it might be because anyone who wants to operate outside the duopoly now has to explain forcefully that they are in neither camp, and why that’s OK—or else they will get assimilated or dismissed.

“It’s straight outta tha’ dharmakaya.”

The more I read Buddhist history, the more I realize Buddhism has constantly, drastically innovated, in spite of its rhetoric of continuity and tradition. So the question “why should we accept this new version” has always been hot. Usually, the answer is “it’s not new—it’s the original one,” and then some fake history is concocted to justify that.

Tibetan Buddhism allows “terma,” or revelations. It is explicit that these are new teachings that specifically address the new circumstances of the time when they are revealed. There are three different explanations for why this is OK.

The explanation I like is “it just popped out of the dharmakaya.” [Dharmakaya is creative, enlightened emptiness.] The Nyingma tradition regards this as the most correct of the three.

It’s a no-explanation explanation. “Here it is; there’s nothing more to say.”

Shambhala Training was a terma. It just popped into Trungpa Rinpoche’s head. There is no justification for it beyond that.

The Aro gTér, which I practice, is another terma. Aro is also neither traditional nor modern, for which it has been criticized from both sides.

“I like it.”

Many social theorists say the modern era is over. It ended sometime around 1980. Modernity was the period during which Western culture tried to find answers in universal founding principles. For various reasons (this is a big subject), it ended in failure.

In the post-1980 world, chaotic, kaleidoscopic fragments of culture recombine, according to patterns that have no universal justification. We have to learn to cope with the vertigo of no ultimate foundations. Perhaps not just to cope, but to revel in it.

In this world, the answer to “why?” can only be “because I like it.”

I like that answer, too.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

55 thoughts on “Traditional and modern Buddhism: an illusory duopoly”

  1. You’ve created a dichotomy that has no basis in reality. In practice, I believe it’s mostly the Theravadins and, weirdly, the Stephen Batchelor wing of the secularists, who give a hoo-haw about what is “original” in practice. It is recognized that many forms and innovations have been introduced over the years.

    Yes, “what works” is the only reason to keep a practice and teach it to the next generation. However, until something does “work” we don’t know what that is. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the story about how the part of practice someone found most boring and pointless at first was the very thing they were doing when they had their first opening experience.

    So often people who are new to practice come to a dharma center, and look at the altar and candles, and the robes, and the chanting and bowing, and yadda yadda, and say, well, we’ll be getting rid of this eventually, as soon as the stuffy old traditionalist teachers get out of the way. But if they stick it out, more often than not they turn into “traditionalists” themselves. Because very often, the yadda yadda works. It makes no sense, but it works.

    This is not to say that nothing can ever change fgrom the way it was done in Asia. In the 20-something years I’ve been practicing I’ve seen change taking place. But I think a thorough exploration of the “old” stuff is in order so that we actually know what we’re doing when we change things. It’s like the avant-garde composer who studies Mozart so he knows what rules he can break.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I think your perspective is a narrow one and comes mainly from the parts of western Buddhism you’ve seen yourself, but there is a lot going on of which you appear to be unaware.

  2. Apparently I have been unclear!

    My point is exactly the opposite of “there are only two forms of Western Buddhism”. What I’m suggesting is that some politically powerful people have imposed this false dichotomy on us, and it’s time to draw attention to alternatives that fit neither category.

    I agree thoroughly with the remainder of your comment—the last sentence excepted. (Perhaps now that I have clarified my point, that last sentence is no longer relevant.)

    If you can point out other examples of Western Buddhism whose principle is neither “that’s the way it has always been in Asia” nor “our version is compatible with liberal Western values”, that would be useful to me and to readers! I am sure there are indeed others I am unaware of, or overlooking.

  3. Hi Barbara,

    In practice, I believe it’s mostly the Theravadins and, weirdly, the Stephen Batchelor wing of the secularists, who give a hoo-haw about what is “original” in practice.

    I’m taking this to mean that you personally do not give a hoo-haw about what’s original in practice. Am I right? If so, I’d agree. What’s ‘original’ is meaningless if, as you imply, dharma is inherently adaptive.

    But it seems ‘authenticity’ is important to you.
    In yourBuddhism isn’t nice response to these posts:

    . . .there also was some fierce and sincere practice in the West back then. Authentic dharma centers were being established. . .

    and in a reply to another post> here:

    I see many dharma centers and teachers with deep roots in Asian lineages, but with mostly non-ethnic-Asian members, Many of these groups practice rigorous and authentic dharma, but they are gradually adapting the practice to western lay life.

    If originality is not your criterion for authenticity, what is? What do you regard as inauthentic, and on what basis?

    Rin’dzin

  4. I’d love to see the lists you would make under “Modern” and “Traditional”. For certainly, the “Traditionals” here in the USA can’t help but have modern elements though a guru, lama or sensei may be totally traditional in most ways, their followers aren’t and after he/she passes, the would be clear. Or at least that is my impression.

    The constant change of the traditional over the centuries, seems inevitable. Anyway, I’d love to see your list. No lists by readers are forming here yet.

  5. Yes, probably there is no Buddhism anywhere that is entirely unaffected by modernism, now.

    The modern/traditional divide (or spectrum) is found in every Buddhist school (so far as I know). So one can’t make lists by sect, only by organization or individual teachers. I would hesitate to name names, lest people feel they have been put in boxes. I think it’s pretty obvious who’s who if you have been in the Buddhist scene for a while.

    My point in this page was that “traditional” and “modern” are bogus categories, which have been imposed for political reasons. It has been made somewhat true by fiat—teachers have been forced to the two extremes by peer pressure on both sides.

    What I’m actually looking for is a list of approaches that are neither traditional nor modern. I really hoped that readers would think of some that I haven’t. The list I’ve got is: Shambhala, Aro, and the loose punk/pragmatic movement, including for instance Brad Warner and Daniel Ingram. I feel sure there are more, but I’m not thinking of them. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche might have fit the “other” category well 15 years ago, but my impression is he’s been pulled toward traditionalism, under enormous political pressure from Tibetan conservatives. That might be wrong. Tarthang Tulku might be another, but he’s disappeared. There’s just got to be some other experimental oddballs I don’t know about, or can’t think of.

    If we can’t come up with more examples, then maybe the traditional/modern dichotomy is more true than I had hoped.

  6. I guess I am thinking of a local Zen Center I occasion now and again. Very Japanese, but I imagine if it survives another 50 years, it won’t be Japanese. It is Japanese because the teacher studied in Japan and Japanesishness is very marketable to a certain crowd. Just like your Tibetan Aro tradition, many of the followers would probably never had showed up if the whole thing was only cowboy hats and blues guitar with sitting in blue jeans in on saddles instead of full lotus. Because that just ain’t what Buddhism is suppose to be. How could they feel special and spiritually snug with just the familiar stuff plus some silence? Jeez.

    Your teacher kept all the weird Tibetan stuff because that is the tradition he learned in — he played with dropping much of it, but there is tons there. I don’t think there is anything special about a mix, any more than anything special about modern. Either is produces and survives or it doesn’t — who cares about the mix outside of the evolutionary calculus?

  7. Yes, Aro has elements in common with both tradition and modernism.

    In the original post, I suggested that traditionalism and modernism should be defined in terms of how a system justifies itself. Tradition says “Buddha set it up this way”. Modernism says “it’s rational / politically correct / psychotherapeutically correct / emotionally expressive”.

    I suggest that these are bogus kinds of justifications. I want to make room for approaches that don’t use either of them. Aro is one example.

  8. I think the broad terms may get in the way of communication: Modernism, Traditionalism, Consensus, Boomers and such. Without careful operative definitions of what you exactly mean by these terms, a reader could get caught up with either their identification with these terms or the positive notions they have tied up with these terms.

    Modernism could also say, “it is pragmatic (I works)”, “it is replicable, verifiable.”
    Big terms invite big misunderstandings. Big terms are tempting — it makes someone feel like they are saying so much more than they may indeed be doing.

    Aro is one example

    Hmmmm, So this article says:
    (a) Modernism is mistaken
    (b) Traditionalism is mistaken
    (c) “Buddhism in the West has settled into two camps: traditional and modern”
    (d) Only a precious few escape these pitfalls and Aro is one!

    My impression from talking with a few Aro folks is that all is not perfect in heaven either.

    I am sure you are not saying something so bold. Well pretty sure.

  9. Yes—if I had not been writing in a rush, I would have laid a great deal more groundwork, including defining terms. That would probably have prevented most of the misunderstandings. In retrospect, writing in a rush was a mistake, but I wanted to make a timely response to NellaLou’s important piece about the Maha Teachers’ Council.

    At this point, I’m unsure whether to continue with the series on Buddhist modernism. Explaining it in enough detail to be understood may be more work than it is worth; this is taking me away from my other writing projects, which I think are more important.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that “neither traditional nor modern” is a recipe for total wonderfulness. Aro is definitely not for most people. And, there are various aspects of all the other “neither traditional nor modern” systems that I find problematic.

    What I am trying to do is point out that there are other possibilities, and room for innovation. I’d like to help widen the scope for that.

  10. Mr. Chapman,

    You said, “In the original post, I suggested that traditionalism and modernism should be defined in terms of how a system justifies itself. Tradition says ‘Buddha set it up this way’. Modernism says ‘it’s rational / politically correct / psychotherapeutically correct / emotionally expressive’.
    I suggest that these are bogus kinds of justifications. I want to make room for approaches that don’t use either of them. Aro is one example.”

    Could you say in what way the Aro lineage justifies itself, if it doesn’t do so using Traditionalism or Modernism justifications? And then what lineages are similar to the Aro lineage in that way? What lineages justify themselves the same way the Aro lineage does?

    Thanks!

  11. Yes—Aro is a térma. That is, a new presentation of Vajrayana, meant to be useful to a particular time.

    Unfortunately, according to Tibetan theory, there is no way to determine conclusively whether a térma is valid. One can try to check whether it is consistent with other Vajrayana systems, which it seems to be, to me. But unless one has perfect understanding of Dharma, this is not altogether reliable, and prominent Tibetan Lamas frequently disagree about térmas. In practice, it’s highly political.

    Each terma is supposed to have come from a Dharmakaya Buddha, to have be transmitted via one or more Sambhogakaya Buddhas, and then to have been passed to a Nirmanakaya Buddha, i.e. a living Lama. I view this as visionary inspiration rather than verifiable fact.

    Ultimately, there’s no justification for a terma. You accept it or you don’t. You could apply the “does it work” criterion, or the “do I like it criterion”. I do advocate that, but it’s not exactly a traditional approach.

  12. By the way, I’ve mentioned Shambhala, and the systems of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku. All of these are termas.

    Terma has been the main mechanism for innovation in Tibetan Buddhism. I hope it can continue to serve that function in the West.

    The “magical” explanations of terma are unacceptable to modernists, however, and their innovative qualities have always made Tibetan traditionalists unhappy, so it would take some doing for terma to be a mainstream, productive phenomenon in future.

  13. It kind of ironic that many modernists don’t accept “magical” explanations for things. iPhones are magical as far as my understanding really goes. The internet, the economy, my cat, romantic relationships…all these things are really beyond my understanding, except in a reductionist sort of way. Some sales clerk tells me that this new micro-processor has “Super Core technology” or whatever, and I say GREAT! But I have no idea what that means, and I can’t pry the chip open to see it’s Super-Core-ness. I accept things explained by scientists (or, apparently, Best Buy sales clerks) as rational facts, even if they do amaze me (to ME an iPhone is incredible!), but then I dismiss spiritual explanations if they sound too “magical”. We are an arbitrary people, we Westerners.

    So, do people understand their electronics any more than they understand their spirituality?

    I don’t. But that doesn’t prevent me from utilizing either of them.

    I hope people open up to the idea of terma. It doesn’t seem any crazier than anything else in this crazy world.

  14. Nice post, Noah. Gotta love a little magic in the world. As society becomes more and more specialised, the world becomes (or appears to become) more and more incomprehensible – because we only understand our tiny niche. Anything outside our sphere of knowledge has to be comprehended through faith (albeit informed faith). And faith and magic are linked. Just watch a blacksmith at work, with modern eyes, and you’ll see why Weyland became a God. Heck, these days just watch the progress of the seasons in a veggie plot in the garden, and you’ll Deify Alan Titchmarsh and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. Oh, wait, we did that already.

  15. “Heck, these days just watch the progress of the seasons in a veggie plot in the garden, and you’ll Deify Alan Titchmarsh and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall.”

    :)

  16. @ Noah & David

    Words can be so elusive.
    I can think of two common uses of the word “Magical”. Using adjectives before them may help:

    (1) Supernatural-Magic : “without a naturalistic explanation”

    (2) Wonder-Magic: “Boy, I really can’t understand that, but gee, it is wonderful!”

    Belief in Supernatural-Magic has been an obstacle to advancement in knowledge over the millenium. Attacks against those who don’t believe in supernatural magic eventual resort to accusations of reductionism, uninspired and even moral depravity. None are true, but that would be a long comment.

    Belief in Wonder-Magic is universal, but confusing it with #1 is often unproductive.

    Something may work but not for the reasons offered in by the believer in Supernatural-Magic. As you allude, dismissing something just because you can’t explain it is also a mistake.

    David, you said,

    The “magical” explanations of terma are unacceptable to modernists

    .
    You see, you use the word “Modernist” to capture too much. On one hand you use it derogatorily as those who feel compelled to “politically correct/psychotherapeutically correct/emotionally expressive” but here you are simply referring to without a naturalistic explanation.
    By using abstract words with broad reach, you invite misunderstanding and talking past each other.

    Noah, you said,

    I hope people open up to the idea of terma.

    I think this issue, as far as my limited understand, has several layers. First, the tibetan word “Terma” seems to be accurately enough translated as “revelation” in this setting — let’s stick to English to avoid giving confusion.

    — Some claim that their revelations come from gods or the Dharmakaya Buddha via a Sambhogakaya Buddha. No matter, both of these carry a holy, untouchable connotation that science has had to fight for centuries. Claiming “revelation” is a dirty trick for the most part. Why not just claim, “It came to me” — take the sanctification out. Well, because they want the sanctification as a means of justification.

    — David suggests that one option is to ignore the “revelation” thing, here it as “inspiration” and see if it works for you. I agree that this is a great approach for those of us who can’t accept supernatural-magic. We still can accept wonder-magic, with all its inspiration, motivation and transformative helpfulness.

    — If a whole tradition is offered as coming from gods/buddhas to a society which spent centuries getting rid of oppressive god-men in their governments, in their morality, and in their science, then we will always have this issue.

    — saying, “Stop being so reductionist and uninspired. Jump back into our supernatural world.” will be unproductive, I am afraid. And like you, I think the loss would be large from both sides.

    [am I correct is assuming both Chris and Noah are Aro folks?]

  17. @ David,
    I would hate to see you stop posting stuff here. I would just say that keeping your posts focused without trying to capture too much, would be helpful. For instance, I would never have heard about the Maha Teacher Council or thought about this homogenizing issue had you not written. These series of posts have been most helpful. Don’t let the unsavory dialogue with rough commentors discourage you.
    You are my favorite Buddhist commentator — I hope you keep going!

  18. Sabio,

    Hi.
    I was an Aro Apprentice for a very short while a couple of years ago, but I’m not any more.

    You said, “Some claim that their revelations come from gods or the Dharmakaya Buddha via a Sambhogakaya Buddha. No matter, both of these carry a holy, untouchable connotation that science has had to fight for centuries. Claiming ‘revelation’ is a dirty trick for the most part. Why not just claim, ‘It came to me’ — take the sanctification out. Well, because they want the sanctification as a means of justification.”

    I guess it seems like science has thrown the potentially-spiritually-authentic-baby out with the religion-used-as-a-political-control-tool bath water.

    While science has been used to defend people from corrupt religious institutions, it also seems like it was used much earlier to destroy tribal religions and their explanations for how the world worked.

    Thanks for continuing to post. I was away from the computer for a couple days – the garden and the lake shore beckon.

  19. @ Noah

    As long as someone (religious or not) makes empirical claims (how the world works, miracles, accomplishments), then they are open to the investigation by the scientific method. Where their are claims, evidence matters.

    Tribal religions claim that history, weather, illness and much more to be at the mercies of the gods and ancestor-spirits — you are right, science has continually shown this to be foolishness because they lack an iota of evidence.

    But I agree that there is much of value that is cloaked in some religions.

  20. Many readers misunderstood this post as suggesting that there inherently, truly, are only two kinds of Western Buddhism. That was exactly the opposite of what I meant to say. Unfortunately, because I am writing in a hurry, I failed to make the point clear.

    I’ve done a round of revision of the text; I hope the meaning comes through more clearly now.

  21. Dear David,

    My friend Lawrence White pointed me towards your blog and I responded as below. Lawrence forwarded my text to Rin’dzin Pamo who emailed me suggesting that I publicize what I had said to Lawrence on your blog. In the hope that it might be of interest to yourself and others (or else that I might be a sort of gadfly provoking further useful discussion), and bearing in mind that my remarks were not originally addressed to you nor do do I presume to have fully understood your ‘position’ on contemporary Buddhism, I offer my observations to the light of more public scrutiny.

    Yours in the dharma, with much metta,

    Ashvajit

    Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2011 11:20:12 +0100
    Subject: Re: Traditional and modern Buddhisms

    Hi Lawrence,

    Here are some thoughts about David Chapman’s blog:

    He gives the title Traditional and modern Buddhism: an oppressive duopoly to his posting of June 11. The word duopoly is a fairly recently-coined word meaning the market condition that exists when there are only two sellers. So David’s implication is that what he calls ‘Buddhism’, or ‘Buddhism today’ – barring recent developments – presents only two broad possibilities, both of which oppress or serve to limit people’s minds or attitudes (both towards Buddhism itself, or perhaps, towards the world).

    I find this idea a bit strange, because the whole emphasis in Buddhism as I have come to know it over nearly forty years of study and practice is about freedom – freedom of thought, freedom of individuality, freedom of action, freedom of speech. And by freedom here, of course, I mean something like steadiness, clarity, truthfulness, roundedness and depth of thought and compassionate action leading to perfect peace and contentment, not just thinking and saying or even putting into action whatever absurd, ill-informed or half-baked idea comes into one’s mind.

    David goes on to explore his idea that contemporary Buddhism is divided into two camps: traditional and modern, suggesting that they are in some sense opposed to one another and also that both have a controlling or monopolistic agenda. Well, there is some truth in that. Groups of all kinds tend to develop triumphalist tendencies. It also raises the question of what does one mean by ‘traditional Buddhism’? By traditional Buddhism one does not mean, presumably, a particular ancient or modern Buddhist sect or organization that claims to represent the teachings of the Buddha without, in fact, doing so – which is perhaps what David is rightly protesting against. A traditional Buddhist is one who goes for Refuge to the Three Jewels of the Tradition – to the human historical Buddha, to his spiritual teachings, and to his enlightened disciples in order to gain Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. The traditional Buddhist in this sense is possessed of what is called Right View – that is, that there is the possibility of what are called ‘further men’ – men who are more spiritually developed than ordinary (unenlightened) men, men who are possessed of genuine Insight. These men develop spiritually by deepening their understanding of what are called the Four Noble Truths and actually practising the Noble Eightfold Path, eventually gaining insight into those Truths and that Path. Furthermore, the traditional Buddhist believes, outside the practice of that Noble Eightfold Path, at least in principle, no truly enlightened men are to be found.

    Perhaps David does not see the Buddha as the Buddha – as the Enlightened Man, the first man known to human history to discover the whole principle of higher human development leading to Enlightenment. Or perhaps he wishes to deny the Buddha any originality or special place in the history of humanity. He seems to think that only God could rightly lay claim to that, but in fact God or the idea of God does not lead to enlightenment but has kept humanity clouded in ignorance ever since some members of humanity invented him. But I think to deny the Buddha any originality is a great mistake. Despite what David says about originality, the Buddha was original, so far as human records can tell. Nowhere in the whole of human history do we find – prior to the Buddha – the record of a man whose enlightenment cannot rightly be challenged. At no time before the Buddha began to teach do we find mention of an ascending series of steps and stages of spiritual experience culminating in Enlightenment, teachings that a human being can follow and realize for himself in this lifetime. At no time before the Buddha began to teach do we find any mention of the basic principle of universal conditionality and the escape from it. David does however acknowledge that Buddhism was ‘different’ from any current teaching. Here, I suspect, he is threatening to raise ‘being different’ to the status of a religion. It is not so much that the Buddha was different that he is admired, followed and worshiped. It’s the fact that he was Enlightened!

    Concerning ‘modern Buddhism’, David appears to be confusing modernism and Buddhism, not making it clear which he is talking about. Is he talking about ‘Buddhism today’ – contemporary authentic Buddhism, or is he, rather, talking about a species of ‘modernism’ that tries to include in itself what it would like to think of as Buddhism without knowing what Buddhism really is? Concerning those who are attracted to ‘modern Buddhism’ because they regard it as ‘really nice’, I think David has a point: there are probably many people who take to Buddhism thinking that it is ‘really nice’, and then becoming disaffected when the going gets a bit difficult.

    David has obviously thought quite a bit about apparent dualities or opposites, but appears not have really resolved them in himself. This may be because he has not committed himself fully (well, there isn’t really any other kind of commitment) to any particular teaching or to any particular teacher. In such a situation one continues to wobble, rather than sitting still regularly for 50 minutes, an hour, or two hours a day, week after week, month after month, reflecting calmly on one’s thoughts and feelings, and little by little gaining Insight and deepening one’s faith in one’s teacher and in the Buddha’s teaching through one’s own life’s experience.

    with much metta,

    Ashvajit

  22. @ Ashvajit

    Your last paragraph is both an unfounded leap of judgement against David and is immaterial to the discussion. To assume someone has inferior experience and discipline compared to yourself because you disagree with your interpretation of one of their essays, is an exercise both in poor logic and poor character.

    I am wondering if this is your web page and if you are a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order ( AKA: Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO)).

  23. “David has obviously thought quite a bit about apparent dualities or opposites, but appears not have really resolved them in himself. This may be because he has not committed himself fully (well, there isn’t really any other kind of commitment) to any particular teaching or to any particular teacher.”

    Mr. Chapman’s Root Gurus (Lamas), as I understand it, are Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Dechan (or perhaps one of their Brevet Lamas) who are the Lineage Holders for the Aro Lineage (http://arobuddhism.org/).

    On the very first page on Mr. Chapman’s rad-ass website, Approaching Aro, it says:

    “I am an ‘apprentice’ in the Aro lineage. Aro is a lineage within the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Aro particularly emphasizes Dzogchen. What I have to say will be most relevant to those interested in Aro specifically, and to those intrigued by Dzogchen. I hope much will also be relevant to approaching other Nyingma lineages, and to approaching Vajrayana generally.” (http://approachingaro.org/)

    So, you know what, broseph? You should do some research before making such uneducated statements. You just end up looking like a goof. You big goof. :)

    with much Metamucil®,
    noah

  24. Noah / Sabio – If I were Ashvajit I’d not have written some of the more personal observations that were in that letter, but before proceding I think it is useful to recall that Ashvajit was invited to publish these comments by Rin’dzin, and has acknowledged that ‘I [do not] presume to have fully understood [David’s] ‘position’ on contemporary Buddhism, I offer my observations to the light of more public scrutiny.’ In that light. . .

    Ashvajit – If I read the blog correctly, I suspect you & David are in agreement about the nature of Buddhist practice being about freedom. He actually divides modern practice into (i) the Consensus (which does, as you say, endeavour to provide some restrictions and boundaries) and (ii) everything else. Quite a few people have read the blog as suggesting there are ‘two modes of Buddhist practice’ but that isn’t what is being said. In fact the ‘everything else’ category is the whole myriad of different styles, lineages, traditions, with all their variety. In terms of providing a critique, perhaps David might adjust his presentation slightly given this is becoming a common misreading of his view.

    Regarding Modern Buddhism – have you read the more recent post https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/modern-buddhism-forged-as-anti-colonial-weapon/ as that may provide some backdrop to what is being discussed? I believe the intention is that David will put some references on that page to help differentiate between those views which are his own speculation, and those which are based in research & the available literature. However, I understand there is a solid research base behind the view of ‘Modern Buddhism’.

    Regarding the overall tone of the piece – I think you are accurately picking up on the fact that this blog is about an exploration of what is going on in Buddhism today. The author freely acknowledges that he hasn’t resolved his own thoughts on some of the issues at hand. Actually, that sense of exploration is something I appreciate about the blog. It has a general sense of direction, but no absolute certainty as to its final destination.

    Best regards

    Namgyal

  25. @ Sabio, Noah – I agree with the points you make; but I hope you weren’t trying to defend me. (Probably not, but that was a possible interpretation.) Side-taking tends to add to the Buddhism-as-football dynamic of the Buddhist Blogosphere. I prefer to keep discussions substantive, and wouldn’t want to be defended.

    That said, I do find it odd that several people have recently speculated about how much I practice. As it happens, the guesses have all been quite wrong—but that’s not really relevant…

    It’s possible to practice for decades and accomplish little or nothing. It’s quite likely that I have done that, and if there are faults in my writing, perhaps it reflects that failure. Conversely, it is (supposedly) possible to achieve realization after little or no practice. And, there are people in various traditions who have spent decades in caves, and who disagree with each other strongly about basic principles of Buddhism. So altogether I am skeptical that it is possible to estimate how much someone has practiced based on what they write.

    @ Ashvajit – I appreciate your good intentions in posting what was meant to be a private email. Rin’dzin has told me that she didn’t meant to suggest that you do that; there seems to have been a communication slip there somewhere. If you’d prefer, I can remove your post and the subsequent discussion.

    As for the rest of your comment, I’m not sure I can respond usefully. Partly you seem to have taken me to be saying some things I didn’t intend, and which I should probably clarify. Generally, my post seems to have been exceptionally badly-written, since misunderstanding of my intended meaning was widespread.

    At a deeper level, we may have such different frames of reference that I’m not sure we could communicate usefully. I might be misreading you, but it seems that you believe that you know what the original Buddhism was, and that’s the authentic Buddhism, and anything else is not really Buddhism. Most Buddhists believe that, it seems, but they have entirely different ideas about what “authentic” Buddhism is. Personally, I don’t think anyone can know what the original Buddhism was, and I also think originality is irrelevant to whether a current-time system is valuable.

    I know only a little about Triratna; but my impression is that it is an innovative, syncretic system with, for instance, a new form of ordination without precedent in earlier Buddhisms. I think that is absolutely great. For instance, I believe non-monastic ordination is a really important thing for the West, and I practice in a system that has a different non-monastic ordination (with a much longer lineage, as it happens).

    If my understanding of Triratna is correct, I find it puzzling that you seem to claim justification from tradition, and to be able to say what is authentic on that basis, since much of your own system is only a few decades old.

    Cheers,

    David

  26. @ David,
    No, I wasn’t defending you, thought that would be tempting. Instead, I was criticizing Ashvajit’s style of argument. Perhaps putting different contexts into his same form of argument would help:

    Your theology is wrong because you don’t pray enough

    Your opinion is wrong because you didn’t go to college as long as I have.

    You don’t understand love because you have not had as many wives as I have.

    And when this form is filled with religious rhetoric, it is even more repugnant. I am calling out this sort of thinking for what it is. I see atheists do it, Christians do it and Buddhists do it. And I am certainly taking no side in the Buddhist playground — I have no dog in that race.

    Part of keeping discussion substantive is keeping the rhetoric logical and clear — that is what I was defending.

    Concerning Practice:
    I have heard others say that practicing for years may still result in little change. I think many Christians and Buddhists have seen this among many avid practitioners. Such an event would lead to a cognitive dissonance which is perhaps best resolved by developing pride in the time-put-in or more “faith”. Few, after decades of devotion to any activity, would be willing do doubt their efforts — the cost would be too high.

    @ Noah
    The “Metamucil” line was hilariously refreshing. I may steal that idea for a blog post — thanks!

    @ Namgyal Dorje
    Invited or not, I think that form of reasoning is best called out. Perhaps Ashvajit (if he wasn’t just a fly-by) will think twice before (rightly or wrongly) trying to prove his opinion against others by using his age or his time-on-the-pillow to sanctify it.

  27. Dear David and Friends,

    I appreciate your fierce friendship ;-) I need your criticism to improve my act, so thanks.

    I appreciate your measured response, David, and am amused rather than piqued by other construals and deconstructions of what I said. I am always prepared for opposition, and am even learning to tolerate total dismissal. It does not really help, however, to indulge in schoolboy name-calling: it does nothing to further the discussion. I admit to some of the faults attributed to me, and will try to improve. And if others find nothing of value in what I say, well, they are free to ignore me. A response of vilification rather than a mixture of protest and affirmation does however suggest a certain one-sidedness – after all, I do have things of value to say, and so, I am sure, do all the contributors here. Mere deconstruction I don’t regard as a full deployment of one’s creative and imaginative faculties. No doubt I have touched a few raw nerves somewhere, and will try to be more aware of those in future. With regard to my allusion to cushion-time, well, there’s no harm in trying to establish a baseline, is there, and quite a low one at that?

    I see you have modified your stance somewhat, David, changing the ‘oppressive’ of your original title to ‘illusory’. And I think, with a title like that, I would have not felt tempted to take you to task. However, see below….

    If I may be permitted to take a slightly different tack, I wonder what, actually, is the motive behind the topic of this particular blog. Could it be that you, like many others including myself, seek wider contexts to air ideas – wider, that is, than our own particular Sangha, and find this topic particularly controversial and therefore stimulating? What do we think is the value in discussing such a question, rather than giving, for instance, a well-thought-out talk or publishing an article on it? And why do we (if we do) seek contexts outside our own sangha? I confess I do not know the answers; I could speculate, but I won’t. I regard the blogosphere as very much an experiment in self-discovery as well as a means of possible authentic and friendly communication with others with whom otherwise one would have little or no contact. Possibly a question for a fresh blog.

    yours with much metta,

    Ashvajit

  28. Ashvajit, thank you for the thoughtful reply.

    I wasn’t actually intending or expecting this series to be “controversial” in the way it has been. That seems to have been an accident, due partly to my writing unclearly (due to being in a hurry, as I explained in the preface to this series).

    The common misunderstanding of what I was saying seems to have touched a raw nerve for many people. That’s interesting, but I’m not sure what exactly the unintentional pain point was. Maybe there’s a lot of unresolved hostility between the traditional and modern camps (which would tend to confirm my thesis!), and I inadvertently provided a forum for it.

    What I am groping toward is a new way forward for Buddhism in the West, starting from my perception that it was on a wrong, dead-end track, from roughly 1990 to roughly 2006.

    I have a diagnosis for how and why it went wrong. (In short: the mainstream unthinkingly adopted several aspects of modernism that don’t work, and those were enforced via a political “Consensus”.) To explain that diagnosis, I need to lay out the story of the last 150 years of its intellectual history (which will take ten-ish pages).

    I also have very tentative ideas about alternative ways forward. These ideas are quite unlike anything I’ve heard anyone else suggest, which means they might either be influential and useful, or they might be completely off-the-wall. They will certainly be unpalatable for anyone who is either traditional or modern (or a mixture of the two).

    Those ideas are the background for why I’m working on my other projects. “Buddhism for Vampires” and “Meaningness” are instances of the approach I would sketch at the end of this blog series.

    This series got off on the wrong foot, because I was in a hurry to comment on the Maha Teachers’ Council (which is the most recent and interesting manifestation of the Consensus). And I was unsure from the beginning whether it was worth taking the time to write the series. I went ahead only on the theory (now conclusively disproven) that I could do a quick brain-dump and it would be better than nothing.

    So, I’m unsure whether to continue, or to abort, or to backburner the project for now.

    Or perhaps I should skip ahead and present the punchline (the possible way forward). But, I’m not sure it would make sense without the background. And, a problem with writing in a blog format is that you can’t structure the presentation of large ideas, or present pieces out of order and reassemble. If I skip ahead, the presentation order is permanently wrong. (My other sites are structured as hierarchical books, rather than in order of writing. But a WordPress blog doesn’t give that flexibility.)

    As for why blog—Yes, naturally, my hope is to air ideas in as broad a context as possible. My ideas are tentative and I would like feedback and correction, from diverse points of view. Also, it is possible to reach more people on the web than with paper publication. (Judging from page-read statistics.) Presentation in more-formal contexts gives one credibility, maybe, though.

  29. Hello David ‘n all,

    Yes, I too am getting the feel of comment styles and developing some skill (not a moment too soon) in walking between the verbal landmines ;-)

    What you say, David, suggests we share similar experiences – or at least, that we feel those pulls in different directions – whether to spend quite a lot of time alone writing a talk or a long article or a book, or whether to enjoy the buzz of of a blog or social network and getting the benefit (just possibly) of feedback. I think that time spent alone working on a literary-cum-dharmic project is probably the most valuable choice in many cases, because it necessitates meticulous research, clear thinking and lucid reflection based on one’s meditative experience. It’s potentially transformative, and in due course may provide material for others to reflect upon and benefit from.

    The social network thing, on the other hand, tends to narrow one’s focus in ways determined by other contributors, which may be individually and temporarily satisfying, but can prevent the wider picture from being clearly seen and properly evaluated. No doubt communication of many kinds is helpful, (particularly one-to-one) but work in solitude, in the long run, can be of the greatest fruit. I think a long article on ‘Ways Forward’ or ‘Ways is an admirable idea. Why not go for it?

    I am intrigued to learn the relevance of your ‘Buddhism for Vampires’ thing.

    All good wishes,

    Ashvajit

  30. @ Noah : some very perceptive comments there – really appreciated them.

    @ David : I am beginning to wonder whether the whole ‘Traditional / Modern’ dichotomy is a bit of a red herring. Doesn’t the Path today (in whatever part of the world, in whatever culture one happens to live in) always begin with: ‘I believe myself, I feel myself to be a Buddhist’; ‘I’m gonna try to follow some basic Precepts’; ‘I’m gonna try to practice meditation to the best of my ability’; I’m gonna study all the Buddhist Scriptures that I can – given my linguistic limitations – and try to make sense of them in the light of contemporary knowledge, not forgetting the Higher Criticism, making allowances for the tedious repetitions of oral tradition and the apparent contradictoriness of a lot of Eastern thought, and not writing things off on that account’; ‘I’m gonna make friends with other Buddhist practitioners and try to learn from them’; ‘I’m gonna use my imagination and my ethical and aesthetic and poetic senses to re-imagine the Buddha’; ‘I’m gonna try to find a reliable Buddhist teacher / Buddhist teachers to help me if I get really confused’? Something like that?

    Surely no-one is exempt from these steps, in their approach to the Dharma? Whether they move towards what one may call ‘Traditional’ Buddhism, or whether they move towards something you may call ‘Modern’ Buddhism is surely a matter of inclination and definition. One need not exclude the other, unless you insist on defining things in such a way that they DO (apparently) exclude one another – in which case, you are in real difficulties, I suspect. I think there is room in this wide world for many different Buddhist groups, many different approaches to the Ideal, and surely the best thing to do it to discover what we have in common, rather than to insist that our approach is the only one – which is patently not the case?

    Is there any difficulty with any of the points I’ve mentioned so far? Do newcomers to ARO have the same kind of ‘take’ on things, the same kind of approach? Would they go along with what I’ve said above? What kind of questions do they ask, what kind of committment – if any – do folk have to make to become full-time members of ARO?

  31. @ Ashvajit – Hmm. I’m afraid I’m not sure I follow your questions.

    It occurs to me that there may be a communication disconnect based on the differences between the US and UK Buddhist landscapes. Based on what Dharmavidya and Ngakpa Namgyal have said, it seems that the UK may be blessed free from what I’m calling Consensus Buddhism: the thorough-goingly modern approach. Perhaps the self-styled “authentic”, more-traditional approaches, common in the US, are also less visible in the UK.

    I understand that the three major Buddhist organizations in the UK are SGI, NKT, and Triratna. Setting aside SGI (which has a quite different audience), NKT and Triratna both appear (from a distance) to combine aspects of traditionalism and modernism. That is, they justify different parts of their systems on the basis of “This is what it says in scripture which comes straight from the Buddha” and on the basis of “This is what works in the modern world because it’s rational / democratic / emotionally healthy.” So the UK may be less polarized than the US. (Of course, the US also has systems that combine traditional and modern justifications.)

    The point of this post was meant to be that both the traditional and modern justifications are problematic (in ways that the blog series will explain in detail as we go along). Therefore, systems that are neither traditional nor modern are important, and may point the way into the future.

    I think there is room in this wide world for many different Buddhist groups, many different approaches to the Ideal, and surely the best thing to do it to discover what we have in common, rather than to insist that our approach is the only one – which is patently not the case?

    I don’t think that there’s anything that Buddhists (or even Western Buddhists) have in common. I don’t think we have a shared Ideal. This idea that there is a shared essence to all different forms of Buddhism is one I’ll be writing about a lot soon. It’s one of the central ideas of the Consensus – and the Consensus (as a political force) uses that to impose conformity on diversity.

    I do think there is room for many different Buddhist groups. In opposing the Consensus, I’m trying to open up space for more diversity – along axes that the Consensus is blind to, or wishes to suppress. (That is the point this post.)

    I’m missing the connection you are drawing between the early steps on the Buddhist path and the traditional/modern issue. Maybe you can clarify. Also, I don’t follow why you are asking about Aro. I mentioned Aro just as an example of a neither-traditional-nor-modern system.

    To prevent possible misunderstandings: this blog series is not about Aro at all. If I refer to it again later, it will only be in passing. The punchline of the series is definitely not “… and so Aro is the right answer”.

    If you are interested in Aro specifically, maybe you could ask those questions again over on Approaching Aro.

  32. @ David

    Thanks for that David, it has made things a lot clearer. I haven’t time to respond at length now, but wish to do so later. Just wanted to thank you for your blog, and wish you a pleasant evening.

  33. @ Ashvajit

    If your introduction to Buddha-ism is via Mahamudra/Dzogchen, things can seem very different.

    To my parents, their back yard (which is untended wild honeysuckle and wild raspberries and poison ivy and rocks and elm and poplar and mosquitoes and birds and chipmunks …a tiny forest) is OBVIOUSLY not as valuable as their manicured lawn and square little garden.

    To ME, however, their backyard is a place of ADVENTURE and ENERGY.

    I could say something like, “I think we can all agree that the most important part of the yard is the house and the deck and the flowers and the refrigerator.”

    Well…no and yes. They ARE useful and great, but they can be traps in themselves, ESPECIALLY if they turn you off to the rest of the yard – the wilderness – because you get to used to them.

    I am interested in regrowing my own personal wilderness until it spills over and grows together with other people’s wildernesses, and then I won’t be able to say where “I” end and “yous guys” begin. :)

    THAT is why I am interested in the supposed -ism of this supposed Buddha guy, I guess.

  34. @ David
    (1) On Aro
    You said:

    I mentioned Aro just as an example of a neither-traditional-nor-modern system.

    Don’t you think Aro has BOTH traditional and modern elements along with neither elements?

    (2) On a tolerant UK
    It was fun to read the wiki articles on three major UK Buddhist organizations you mentioned:
    (1) New Kadampa Tradition: a tradition with controversy I had never heard
    (2) Triratna: which I have not run into yet in the USA but only ran into some strong personalities on the web.
    (3) SGI: which I had intimate experiences with while living in Japan.

    Even these three sound different enough to be polarizing — I wonder if there is more of a live-and-let-live relation between them in the UK. Paint me skeptical.

    (3) On Buddhist Essentialism
    I look forward to your post on “Buddhisms: No shared essence” ! I think such a stance in anthropological (my preferred stance). But when a person is trying to build a particular Buddhist organization or even in trying to promote correctives to Buddhist thought, he/she almost unavoidably takes the prescriptive stance where they can’t help telling us what Buddhism is , was or should be. The Prescriptive and Anthropological views are in deep conflict. We see it in Christianity also. I think the problem is that we believe our own rhetoric and don’t realize it for what it is.

    And I don’t think persuasion/rhetoric is bad, but it can be useful to understand what is going on. When people value a name, a tag, a flag or whatever, they will want it to have an essence. “Essentialism” is one of the deepest delusions of the mind — but for good reason — it is useful.

  35. Don’t you think Aro has BOTH traditional and modern elements along with neither elements?

    This question helps me understand why my original post was so badly misunderstood. The conceptual framework of the post is understanding the categories “traditional” and “modern” in terms of justifications. The post does seem to me to say that quite clearly, but maybe that’s sufficiently unfamiliar an idea that I ought to have set it up first in a boring background post.

    Aro definitely has elements that derive from Buddhist tradition and from Western modernity. Those are pretty nearly the only available building materials! The point is that it mostly doesn’t use either traditional or modern justifications for itself, or for including those elements.

    It’s rare to hear an Aro Lama say “we do that because it’s traditional in Tibetan Buddhism,” or “we do that because it’s rational / egalitarian / psychologically healthy.” Terma justification (“according to the Aro gTér…”) is common (and regarded as ultimate). Pragmatic justification and aesthetic justification are also common.

    The importance of justification is that it bounds what kinds of Buddhism we can have. If all Western Buddhisms have to conform to tradition, modernity, or a mixture, all Western Buddhisms are going to look pretty much like they do now. I think that’s a dead end, and we need alternatives.

  36. @ David

    So the justifications you say can be heard by Aro teachers are:

    (1) Terma Justification: Well that is the “divine revelation” wing of traditionalism, isn’t it? Would Christian Pentecostals say they are neither modernistic nor traditional because they claim to hear Jehovah’s live-active guidance for today?

    (2) Pragmatic Justification: Isn’t pragmatism part of modernistic thinking?

    (3) Aesthetic Justification: Is that a post-modern justification?

    I agree that classifying justification methods can be helpful. Again, I look forward to your “Positive Stance” on your desired move in Buddhism and what justifications you use — call them epistemologies (like divine revelation) or aesthetics, people inevitably use justifications to persuade, don’t you think?

    I wonder if a brader taxonomy of justifications would be helpful besides: Modern, Traditions, and Neither.

  37. Terma Justification: Well that is the “divine revelation” wing of traditionalism, isn’t it?

    No, because termas are happening now. Traditionalists are happy with divine revelation only as long as the revelation was long ago.

    If you are promoting a new revelation, you can try to mollify traditionalists by saying “this isn’t really new, it’s a magic rediscovery of the true original teaching from the distant past.” The Tibetan terma tradition at least pays lip service to that. Tibetan traditionalists aren’t impressed. They don’t accept terma as legitimate.

    Would Christian Pentecostals say they are neither modernistic nor traditional because they claim to hear Jehovah’s live-active guidance for today?

    I don’t know. Do they? (I know next to nothing about Pentecostalism. Sounds like fun, though.)

    Isn’t pragmatism part of modernistic thinking?

    Mmm… No, I don’t think so (but I’m a bit wobbly on this). Pragmatic justification has always been admissible. The essence of modernism (as defined by many scholars) is foundational justification. “It works” isn’t foundational because there’s no “why.”

    Aesthetic Justification: Is that a post-modern justification?

    Maybe. Yes-ish. I don’t know—what do you think?

  38. @ David
    Ah, I see. I guess I am using another nuance of the word “Traditional”. For in the Nyingma school, Terma is an accepted method for getting information to help adapt Nyingma to the new felt needs of the age. In that sense, Terma is a tradition of the Nyingma sect.

    You see, that can be a problem with such broad categories.

    I think part of Pentecostalism was a way to feed the same need for change in Christianity. Like Terma, it feels that revelations can come to special people and these revelations, though consistent with core beliefs, suggests new and challenging directions for the traditionalists.

    I quote myself from a post I did by a book on Pentecostalism

    Each chapter then explores the evolution of Pentecostal doctrine showing how the various doctrines supported the felt social needs of the particular believers in their point in history.

    When you said, “fun”, that reminds me. Though I am waiting to read you Buddhism for Vampires blog, your posts and twitters on the subject inspired me to watch something I would not normally watch — an HBO show called “True Blood”. In there, the vampire culture runs into the Pentecostal culture frequently. The beginning of every show has all kinds of scenes related to that. I wonder if you could use Pentecostalism in your novel as a vehicle to discus the fiery Terma of not-to-too tender Tantrists!

    Concerning pragmatism: again, maybe a problem with broad terms. Maybe for some, “Modernism” implies pragmatism — doing things because they work and have results as opposed to traditions who said we just do it that way. Humanists try to grab science and make it moral, scientists are pragmatists and need not be confined to niceties. That strikes me as modern too.

    We need a list of terms under both Traditional and Modern with smilies next to the ones you feel are valuable, and down thumbs next to hinderances. Then we can start talking about the particulars instead of debating past each other with the huge general terms. Pesty, aren’t I?

    Concerning “Aesthetics” <– I am all for individual tastes and preferences! Flamboyant or solemn. As long as someone is not telling me what to like.

  39. I find the duolopy problematic as well. Rather than a neat duopoly + neither, I see a whole grab bag of qualities. All traditions exhibit at least some of them.

    For instance, you exclude Shambhala Training from the duopoly because it is supposedly “nothing like any tradition.” Shambhala Training is certainly unusual, but it has been shown by scholars like Robin Kornman, among others, that much of it is based on Ju Mipham’s 19th century Rime synthesis of Dzogchen, Bon, the Kalachakra and the Gesar tradition. Trungpa himself writes that Shambhala training comes from “tremendous heritage and background. This tradition comes from several thousand years of basic tradition, from a society of enlightened people.”

    Further, you also exclude it from the duopoly because those in your “neither” category supposedly do not justify themselves in terms of “because of our universal principles.” But Trungpa made appeals on that basis, saying Shambhala training was “based particularly on the principles of warriorship as they were embodied in the ancient civilisations of India, Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea.”

    So what is see by Trungpa is an appeal to both tradition and universality, although I would agree that he is coy about the specifics, and that he forged something unusual.

  40. Perhaps “nothing like” was an overstatement! But, every new system will be mainly built out of a combination of existing pieces, traditional ones and modern ones. The question is how the system is justified.

    It’s been a long time since I did Shambhala Training, but I don’t remember Trungpa Rinpoche suggesting “the reason this is good is that it has ancient foundations.” I think, in that quote, he’s more suggesting that the principles are universal, because they were found in many different cultures. Universalism is a modern form of justification… so if that’s what he was saying, Shambhala Training might be more modernist.

    Mostly, though, I don’t recall his justifying ST that way. It was more “I’ve received a terma, so we’re doing this new thing.” No more explanation than that.

  41. Well, those are his quotes, from Sacred Path of the Warrior and Great Eastern Sun, the two books that were the public texts of the system. Every system is justified on some basis. In the case of Shambhala Training, I think it is clear there is a mix of traditionalist and universalist justification, along with further justification on the basis of his Buddhist credentials and personal charisma. Even if he had simply said “I’ve received a terma, so we’re doing this new thing,” the fact that there was a “we” already in place in 1976 to build his new structure was in no small part due to his traditional Kagyu/Nyingma credentials.

    This is all to say that I think things are more complicated than you would have them be. Terma are always embedded in tradition in complex ways.

  42. @ Greg (and David)

    Well stated, Greg. I am not familiar with Shambhala or Trungpa R.
    But I have a little familiarity (cursory, actually) with Aro. I would think that Aro that has a mix of justifications too:

    1) Terma (equivalent of divine revelation, IMHO)
    2) Charisma (though unstated)
    3) Pragmatism (works for folks)
    4) Tradition (as you said, it rests on Nyingma shoulders)
    5) Modern notions too are in there

    But, as I discussion on his Zen-Navy thread, these justification that I listed are a mix of followers justifications and teacher justifications. I think these are hard to separate.

    Nonetheless, I think David may agree (well, in part) with most of these. I don’t think he is contending that mix justifications don’t exist either in Shambhala or Aro.

    I think David’s writing, since he creates abstractions called “Consensus Buddhism” and “Modernism” and such, invite overreading of intent. I think this is the danger of such abstractions. Your objections sound spot on and David’s fact-finding and general observations sound spot on and very useful.

    Are you afraid David is taking this somewhere it can’t legitimately go? What do you feel his implications are that would be objectionable?

    May I ask what tradition you are involved with (or have been)?

  43. @Sabio – the conversation can go anywhere it wants to, as far as I am concerned, but I think it is more likely to go somewhere interesting without the abstractions you have ably pointed out. My own background is primary in Vajrayana lineages, although I have some amount of exposure to and familiarity with Theravada practice. I’m also familiar with the academic research in Buddhist Studies – at least to the extent that a layman can be.

  44. Apologies if I’m late in catching onto the interesting things you’ve been posting here.

    Again, I’m amazed at how we have 48 comments on the problem of reconciling modern with traditional forms of justification, and I’m pretty sure (though I’ve only skimmed some of the comments) that there’s not a single mention of the Middle Way. Isn’t this supposed to be a central doctrine of Buddhism? Shouldn’t it be uppermost in the minds of a bunch of Buddhist intellectuals trying to answer his question?

    The Middle Way can dialectically mediate this dichotomy because it is both a key concept of the Buddhist tradition and one that is universally applicable in time and space, and thus pragmatic. The trouble is that many Buddhists have understood it as a metaphysical claim, when I think it is an epistemological approach (see http://www.moralobjectivity.net/Buddhist_errors.html). The Middle Way is also designed to mediate such dichotomies, by providing pragmatic criteria of judgement based negatively on the avoidance of positive and negative types of metaphysics, and then more positively on what helps us address the widest range of conditions.

    This reading of the Middle Way shouldn’t be taken as merely an assertion of the ‘modern’ pragmatic over the traditional, because it rejects some key features of modernity as involving negative metaphysical claims: e.g. relativism, moral descriptivism, determinism, atheism, naturalism. The traditional prescriptive and absolutist approaches are addressing conditions in some ways that modernity is not.

    Where I most disagree with you both here and in your page on ‘niceness’ in the ‘Buddhist consensus’ is that you seem to assume the fact/value distinction and some form of moral descriptivism. See http://www.moralobjectivity.net/assumptions%20-%20fact-value.html on why the fact-value distinction isn’t justified. Ethics isn’t just about what we are culturally determined to believe is right, but also what is actually right. That doesn’t mean that we know what is actually right, but our ethics are a movement of getting closer to what is actually right, as far as we can tell, by working outwards from our social expectations to the demands of all conditions.

    Here are some other pages where I have written more about the themes you are tackling here:
    http://www.moralobjectivity.net/Middle_Way_philosophy.html
    http://www.moralobjectivity.net/TwB_Chapter2.html (The sources of justified belief in Buddhism)
    http://www.moralobjectivity.net/What_is_Buddhist_Ethics.html

  45. Hi David! Arriving late to this conversation, but figured I’d throw in my two cents. First off, you must have done a heck of a job on the re-writes— I found it pretty clear what you were getting at, and think it’s an interesting angle on the issues facing contemporary Buddhism as it moves forward into the post-modern era.

    Anyhow, reflecting on your question, I wonder if you’re familiar with Diamond Way Buddhism? It’s a transmission line of Karma Kagyu dharma via a charismatic and energetic Danish Lama, Ole Nydhal, who was a student of the 16th Karmapa.

    Diamond Way has some interesting elements in light of your theme here: pretty traditional justification (i.e., this goes back to The Buddha), plus pragmatic justification (this stuff really works— if you actually DO it), and the few retreats I’ve attended were full of lots of people my age (under 35), some baby boomers, some elderly people, and kids— in other words, a pretty broad age mix, but definitely slanted young. There is a strong emphasis on practice, with a Vajrayana-centric approach to three-Yanas Tibetan Buddhism in a broad Mahayana base (in other words, lots of emphasis on highest Mahamudra/Dzogchen View, Tantric Ngondro Practices, and Mahayana intent and ethics).

    Also, Ole is decidedly politically incorrect, values transparency over back-room Tibetan politics, and generally exhibits an appreciation of both traditional and modern ways of doing things. And aside from all that, they seem to be pretty popular and vibrant (especially considering how far outside the Consensus they are— “wrong” side of the Karmapa controversy).

  46. Hi, David, I’ve just stumbled in here tonight and am finding your analyses of Western Buddhism quite interesting!

    Concerning “alternative approaches”, you might be interested in my own tradition: the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, founded by Reverend Jiyu Kennett in the early 1970s. It takes roughly the “because it works” approach.

    Short history: Rev. Jiyu was a British woman who trained as a Soto Zen monk in Japan around the 1950s, and was instructed by her teacher to translate Buddhism into Western culture. The approach she and her successors have taken to this seems to be:
    – start with straight traditional Soto Zen
    – observe what works and what doesn’t
    – tinker

    A good example might be celibacy: the Sotoshu allows monks to marry, so Jiyu initially did the same. However, so I’m told, the married monks often had to take day jobs to support their children, which drew them away from monastic life. So, the order ended up moving to the more traditional celibacy rule, with existing couples having to choose whether to separate or disrobe.

    Another: As I understand it, Rev. Jiyu started out with all traditional Japanese chants, then decided they would be more useful if translated into English, then observed that the Japanese chanting style sounds really odd with English words, and adapted Anglican chant for the purpose (complete with organ!)

    On the other hand, we’ve kept most of the “superstitions” and “meaningless rituals”, again on the grounds that they work — mainly in terms of helping with Buddhist training, but also (according to many but not all of the monks) in terms of actually placating spirits and whatnot.

  47. A little late, but here are my candidates for the third category:

    Daniel Brown (contemporary Mahamudra): http://www.pointingoutway.org/index.html
    Traktung Rinpoche (close w Thinley Norbu and not “nice” at all): http://www.traktungrinpoche.org/Traktung_Yeshe_Dorje/Home.html
    Ken McLeod (more contemporary mahamudra): http://www.unfetteredmind.org/ken-mcleod
    Shinzen Young: http://www.shinzen.org/
    Peter Fenner (I like him but you might hear too many advaida/psychotherepeutic alarm bells – nonetheless, approach is consciously post-modern and post-ism): http://www.radiantmind.net/index.php/radiantmind/about/peter-fenner-rm/
    Lama Palden (tantra with heavy diamond heart influence): http://www.sukhasiddhi.org/teachers.php

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