Barbara O’Brien, the official About.com Buddhist Guide, has written a reply to my post about “Nice Buddhism.” (Thanks, Barbara, for the commentary!) I couldn’t quite get my response into the about.com comment length limit, so I’m posting it here.
She said she didn’t recognize this “nice” “consensus Buddhism,” and suggested that I was only aware of Western Buddhists with superficial practice experience. I hesitate to name names—but “consensus Buddhism” is presented by, for example, the Insight Meditation Society teachers, Lama Surya Das, and Thich Nhat Hanh. None of them could be accused of having a superficial practice, I hope! However, their popular works do seem “nice” to me; and this is the Buddhism most Westerners are first exposed to.
In this blog series I’ll present a brief history of “nice Buddhism,” drawing on the work of David McMahan, Gil Fronsdal, and Brooke Schedneck. The short version is that, in Thailand, by the 1960s, traditional Buddhist ethics were already being mixed with Protestant Christian ethics, under pressure from colonial missionaries. That made it particularly easy for the founders of Western Consensus Buddhism to modernize it.
O’Brien especially objects to my statement that “traditional Buddhism doesn’t have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.” That may have been overly broad, but I think it is broadly defensible. [Note: I added the word “distinctively” after originally publishing this, to clarify a possible misinterpretation.]
Talking about “Buddhist ethics” can be misleading. There are many Buddhisms, and many different ethical approaches within them. I think that what most Western Buddhists think of a “Buddhist ethics” hasn’t got much to do with any traditional Asian Buddhist ethics, and much more to do with liberal Western Christian and humanist ethics.
There’s an outstanding essay by Jose Cabezon about Buddhists sexual ethics that explains this. He argues:
- What almost all Western Buddhists think they know about Buddhist sexual ethics is mistaken
- Among other things, traditional Buddhist sexual ethics involves detailed lists of right and wrong actions, which O’Brien (like most Western Buddhists) explicitly denies in her post
- As Buddhists, we ought to consider seriously what Buddhist texts actually do say about sexual ethics
- What they actually do say is absolutely wrong, and we should reject it.
This is not, I think, a problem only with Buddhist sexual ethics, but a broader one.
O’Brien objects to my blaming niceness on Baby Boomers. I don’t think I did that, exactly! However, lots of people have observed that Buddhism appeals more to the Boomer generation than to younger ones. Exactly why, and what to do about it, are not yet clear. (This appears to be a major topic of the current Maha Teachers Council I’ve been writing about.) I suggest that “Boomeritis” is part of the problem: the inability to recognize that some “nice” values (first common in that generation) are not universal.