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.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

79 thoughts on “Protestant Buddhism”

  1. Dear David, thanks so much for posting this. I enjoy reading your posts tremendously. I think it is pretty brilliant and it clarifies a lot of what happens in modern western Buddhism, and why. You put in a broader socio-historical perspective rather diffuse or implicit considerations upon which we base our practice. I understand you are speeding up publication because of recent developments (e.g. Maha Teacher Council), but this is indeed book-material. I am from the Netherlands and am not sure many people over here know about your blog. Will dedicate my next blog post to your work.

  2. Excellent ! Looking forward to “Problems with Buddhist Protestantism”!
    The clarity of this post was enlightening and most instructive — thank you.

    It seems like a separate series called, “Traditional Buddhism — Buddhism on the ground” would be helpful. That notion is hugely controversial for some and could block them from seeing your other points. You mention in at the end of this post, of course — but for those who won’t buy the fine books you suggest, a series of post (by country perhaps), may offer enough to chip away at the mythical view some Westerners have of “wonderful Buddhist countries”. It seems a clear understanding of “Buddhism on the Ground” is the Chapman 101 in your Buddhist studies program! :-)

    Next, it is clear that you want a certain type of Buddhism. Being explicit about why your vision is right, is important. Perhaps it needs bracketing off. Is your decision on what Buddhism needs based on scripture (whose reading), divine authority (which guru), revelation via your meditation, or what? Exposing particular Buddhist epistemology as a justification of brand propagation is key to inter-Buddhist dialogue, I would think. Mixing descriptive and prescriptive analysis can be confusing.

  3. Hey, thanks for the suggestions!

    Oof – Explaining traditional Buddhism-on-the-ground would be a huge job. So… Who is going to be offended by my brief sketch here? I suppose it would be Westerners who think the Buddhism they practice is “authentic” because it’s taught by an Asian guy whose English sucks. And who think it’s important that it’s “authentic” – not like the fake modern New Age Buddhism taught by honkies. And who don’t realize that what they are getting was already extensively modernized in Asia. But, I don’t think I have anything to say to them. If it’s working for them – great! I don’t want to convert anyone…

    My intended audience are people who don’t think “it’s authentic, from Asia” is a justification, and also don’t think “it’s modern, it fits your Western lifestyle” is a justification. And who recognize that combining bits of the two just gives you two bad ideas. And who, like me, may be groping toward some other mode.

    The last part of this series – after I’ve deconstructed the Consensus – will explain my positive vision. As it happens, I don’t think you’ll like it all. The language of your last paragraph is thoroughly modernist: you are asking for a justification, a foundation; and that is the essence of modernism. The final few posts in the series will reject that, and make suggestions about what Buddhism might look like when modernism is abandoned.

  4. Hello David,

    This post of yours is interesting but, I think and believe, wide of the mark. There’s however one main point I’d like to take you up on here. You have formulated what you call Western Buddhism (actually a categorisation requiring nuancing right from the start) in a particular way, and equated it with ‘Protestant Buddhism’. Are you saying, in effect, that all paths following in the footsteps of the Buddha taken up by Westerners would ipso facto be ‘Protestant Buddhist’ paths?

    Actually, the whole idea of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ is faintly absurd. One thinks rightly of Protestants and Protestantism only in the context of a perceived Christian authoritarianism, combined with the promulgation of a teaching that is reckoned in some way repugnant. That was the nub of Martin Luther’s position. The human historical Buddha’s position was completely different. He was not an authoritarian, and communicated from the perspective of the wisely compassionate Enlightened mind. His teaching was soteriological – concerned with the relief of suffering, and his methods were so effective (being based in the natural order of things) that they quickly spread throughout Asia. As for those who didn’t follow in his footsteps, he didn’t stop being compassionate regarding them. Having Enlightened insight into human nature, it would have been completely contrary to his character to condemn those who did not go for refuge to him, to his teachings or to his enlightened disciples. Such was not the attitude of the Roman Catholics or, indeed, many other varieties of Christians.

    Of course, it may well be that many aspirant Buddhists who have their roots in a Christian culture imagine the Buddha as authoritarian, in which case they would certainly benefit from a session of therapeutic blasphemy. In fact, so long as there is fear of God, one can’t really be on the path to Enlightenment. So in THAT sense, there ARE certain difficulties inherent in any immediately post-Christian attempt to communicate Buddhism to listeners consisting of those brought up in a Christian culture. It’s interesting to note, in this connection, that it has recently been discovered that the intellectuals (as they may be called) Ananda Metteya (British) and Jnanatiloka (German) were not in fact the first Western followers of Buddhism who committed themselves to the extent of becoming Bhikhhus. They were pre-dated by a number of working-class men who went to Thailand (or it may have been Burma, or perhaps both), and received ordination. Apparently they became well-respected bhikkhus, and published pamphlets denouncing Christianity. The point I’m making is that this is no accident. Belief in a personal creator God is a hindrance to spiritual development. And it is belief in such a God – or remnants of such a belief – that give rise inevitably to blasphemy and the need for blasphemy. It is the attempt to avoid such a culturally-and-socially-unpopular and even proscribed practice as blasphemy that gives rise to Protestantism. Fortunately today, many intelligent people are openly, publicly, and in well-articulated publications, blaspheming. The entrance to the path to Buddhism (always a ‘Gateless Gate’) is becoming less obstructed than it used to be in the West.

    Much indeed could be said about the many points you have raised, David, but this is not, I think, the right occasion. What I’d like to do is to ask in what sense one may consider oneself a Buddhist. Who is the Buddha to whom we go for Refuge? How do we think about him? How do we imagine him? How do we test his teachings ‘as the goldsmith tests the gold’? How do we know anything about him? Without beginning to answer these questions to our own satisfaction, and at least in principle, how can we even begin to think of ourselves as Buddhists?

    warm regards,


  5. @David

    I don’t think you’ll like it at all.

    I look forward to being disappointed.
    I my last paragraph, btw, I was asking for your “positive vision” for which I patiently wait.

    Most writers of Christian Theologies and Buddhist ideology have implicit epistemologies. They run to vague, slippery terms when challenged, but their rhetoric is full of dependence on these foundations. It is this double standard that I think is fun to inspect in both others and ourselves.

    I think Ashvajit is asking for a thorough epistemology, soteriology, and ontology — he wants the whole package.

    I, personally, don’t think we hold things for reasons and that instead, reasons usually are our minds constructs to justify our stances. Reason, seems to me, a rhetorical tool created by the evolving brain — no so much a tool intended for the discovery of truth (though it can be employed that way.

    Most of us, most of the time, believe the reasons our minds generate and use it rhetorically against others (and ourselves) until the going gets tough and the crowd yells that the king has no clothes.

    Does that sound “thoroughly modernistic”?

    I am curious how your “Positive View” will stand clean, pure and shining — free of any taints of modernism and traditionalism. No matter how squeaky clean, I imagine that history will then take that positive view, have people embrace it, and show all sorts of other taints, I wager.

    (1) Authoritarianism
    Some would contend that Jesus was not authoritarian and that the Christianity that followed it was a perversion. Thus comparing historical examples of Buddhism to historical examples of Christianity seems a useful comparison. When humans touch things, they often take on similar permutations.
    Buddhism’s history is full of authoritarianism — no matter what some “Original Buddha” is felt to believe and taught.

    (2) God Believers

    Belief in a personal creator God is a hindrance to spiritual development.

    Though I am an atheist and believe such a belief is inaccurate, I have seen it very helpful for many people. I have seen many Buddhists who have no belief in a god locked into worse “spiritual development” that those theists.

    (3) Protestant traits
    Let’s say that “Protestant Buddhism” (as used by several scholars) is, as you say, “faintly absurd”. Nonetheless, would you say that your Buddhism has any of the traits that David put in his list?

    Let me make a Protestant Buddhism Score Card.
    If your Buddhism has these traits, it shares something with Protestantism. How many do you share?
    — skepticism of merit transfer
    — no celibate monks
    — avoidance of magic
    — wariness of religious institutions
    — no supplications to Boddhisattvas, Buddhas or Gurus.
    — lay people can act as their own priest
    — lay people can interpret the scripture
    — believe that meditation gives you direct connection with Ultimate Truth
    — the proper focus should be on nirvana, not this world

  6. @ David & @ Sabio

    How I see things: we have the phenomenon called personality: the ongoing, unfolding and developing manifestation of one’s selfhood, one’s empirical self or personality. This phenomenon, which one has oneself and is of course possessed by others, may be said to have three aspects:

    (1) The personality as he or she actually is or was, accessible to historicity
    (2) The personality of one’s imagination – as one imagines the person in question is or was, aided by tradition, by literature including myth and legend, by ethical and aesthetic considerations, by reason, by intuition, and last but not least, by faith
    (3) The personality as it is sub specie eternitatis – in terms of ultimate truth, as seen and evaluated by the Enlightened mind – ontologically, epistemologically and soteriologically

    The Personality of the Buddha can be discerned under all three aspects.

    The Buddha of historicity is embodied in the Pali, (the locus classicus) and evinced in the Theravada tradition today, and also in much archeological evidence. That tradition, limited though it may be, is of inestimable value to us as a historical phenomenon. Historians are a remarkable breed, famed for their constant digging for new evidence, sifting and re-evaluating etc. There is much less doubt that the Buddha known as Gautama Shakyamuni was a historical personality than there is, for instance, in the case of the historical Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. However, it has to be admitted that historical studies do not confer certainty. There is always a balance of judgement, based on the available evidence. Actually, in the case of the Buddha, there is ample evidence for his human existence, more ample than that concerning any other personality of comparable antiquity. If we reject such types of evidence, then there comes a point in the past where one will be obliged to cease to believe in the existence of anyone – a curious position, since homo sapiens is of much greater antiquity than a mere two and half millennia. The skeptic, like Upaka, will always say ‘maybe’ and walk off before giving the matter the consideration it deserves. As I have said before, deconstruction is not the highest function of the human being, important though it may be.

    The personality of the Buddha of one’s imagination, the archetypal Buddha, is primarily informed, not to say conditioned, both by the Mahayana and its plethora of images, and by our own formal, aesthetic and cultural predilections. That ‘perception’ – really a no-perception – of what we may call the Transcendental Buddha may also be profoundly influenced by our visionary-cum-meditative experience. When speaking of these things to others today, we need to be aware that we are living in an era of ‘broken images’ and of deeply-rooted skepticism.

    The Personality of the Buddha as he ‘in eternity’ can be seen by those with transcendental insight, with insight into the real nature of the mind and of what we call the personality. A certain level of deconstruction is reached by the Pali Abhidhamma, but belied by the Suttas themselves. The mysterious, subtle and attractive smile of the Buddha remains, eluding all attempts to explain it away. It is said that those with the inner eye can see and hear the Buddha preaching on Mount Grdhrakuta – the ‘Vultures Peak’ – a mythical location and an actual place that I have visited neat the ancient city of Rajgir, in India. It is the place where the Buddha is said to have held up, without saying a word, a golden flower. Looking around, he saw that everyone was puzzled – except for the old disciple Maha Kashyapa, who, upon encountering the Buddha’s enquiring gaze, smiled. The Buddha then said, according to at least one tradition: ‘I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the formless form, the mysterious gate of Dharma, beyond the words and scriptures. I now pass this on to Maha Kashyapa.’

    with all good wishes,


  7. @ Ashvajit – Alas, again I find it somewhat difficult to follow your questions. Our frames of reference are quite different… If we continue the dialog, those will probably come into view better, and eventually we may both make better sense to each other.

    “Protestant Buddhism” is not a revolt against the authority of the Buddha; it is a revolt against the religious monopoly of the monastic Sangha.

    Are you saying, in effect, that all paths following in the footsteps of the Buddha taken up by Westerners would ipso facto be ‘Protestant Buddhist’ paths?

    Not ipso facto—that is, not simply because they are Westerners. But all the Western Buddhist practice I have encountered has had substantial “Protestant” elements. For traditional lay Buddhists, practice consists of accumulating merit to improve one’s rebirth (mainly by giving money to monks) and of gaining practical this-world benefit through the action of minor spirits (mainly by paying monks to perform rituals). I have never heard of any Western Buddhist for whom those are the main aspects of practice. The least-Protestant Western Buddhists I know of are maximally-traditional Tibetan Buddhists, for whom those may be significant aspects of practice; but they also meditate and read translations of scripture, both of which are “Protestant Buddhism”.

    What I’d like to do is to ask in what sense one may consider oneself a Buddhist. Who is the Buddha to whom we go for Refuge? How do we think about him? How do we imagine him? How do we test his teachings ‘as the goldsmith tests the gold’? How do we know anything about him? Without beginning to answer these questions to our own satisfaction, and at least in principle, how can we even begin to think of ourselves as Buddhists?

    There’s an American catch-phrase: “What you mean ‘we’, white man?” I’m not sure that translates into English. (It’s spoken by Tonto, the American Indian sidekick of the Lone Ranger, when they encounter a large hostile band of Indian warriors.)

    I imagine there are roughly as many answers to your questions are there are Western Buddhists. (We’re individualists here in the West…) I take a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to Buddhism; I don’t think I have the right to say who is, and who is not, “really a Buddhist”, based on their answers. There’s no bright-line litmus test.

    @ Sabio – Ah, yes, maybe you will like my “positive vision”! It starts from observations about the increasing decoherence of the self over the past couple of decades. That may resonate with what you have written on the same subject.

    I am curious how your “Positive View” will stand clean, pure and shining — free of any taints of modernism and traditionalism. No matter how squeaky clean, I imagine that history will then take that positive view, have people embrace it, and show all sorts of other taints, I wager.

    Oh, sure, no one can escape their culture. Certainly not me. All I hope to do is to articulate some ways in which Western culture now seems to have (partly) abandoned modernism as well as traditionalism, and guess about what that implies for Buddhism. Cultural change is a slow process, and can only be seen dimly from within, and usually only in retrospect.

  8. @ David

    If you prefer, for ‘we’ read ‘you’. I was being a bit English – polite, you know? And I asked my questions in all seriousness, looking for your answer, not as mere rhetorical devices.

    I’m beginning to wonder if your ‘Protestant’ is simply someone who does things differently from the ‘mainstream’ or ‘orthodox’ praxis, or who holds a view different from the orthodox one. My question here is ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Not that anyone in my Buddhist circle, for instance, forbids it, but that, if a particular practice is working for you, helping to produce and maintain more positive mental states, even inspired, insightful and illumined ones, why would you want to do something different?

    You say ‘“Protestant Buddhism” is not a revolt against the authority of the Buddha; it is a revolt against the religious monopoly of the monastic Sangha.’ But in what sense does that (or those) monastic Sangha(s) hold a religious monopoly? There are many such Sanghas and one is at liberty to choose between them. On the other hand, one is free to decline to participate in the activities of those Sanghas of which Bhikkhus are the leaders. If one does participate, then for the time being one either respects or tolerates their leadership. If one doesn’t find such leadership helpful, one is free to leave. Unless, of course, one is addicted to opposition ;-) If one finds their leadership congenial, then presumably one may eventually feel inclined to become a bhikku oneself. And then again, there are non-monastic Sanghas. So what is your difficulty? Is it practical, or merely intellectual?

    I am not clear whether you belong to any Sangha. If you don’t, and if you find no existing Sangha congenial, and you are confident that have insight into the Buddha and his teachings, why not start your own Sangha?

    Much metta,


  9. If you prefer, for ‘we’ read ‘you’. I was being a bit English – polite, you know?

    Ah! Sorry! Two nations divided by a common language…

    I belong to the Aro sangha. You might find interesting an article about the Aro understanding of refuge on the web. That is how I approach refuge myself.

    Possibly one other thing that might be useful to say is that Gautama Buddha is not a central figure in Tibetan Vajrayana. As someone attempting Dzogchen, I take refuge primarily in Kunzang Yabyum. I also take refuge in Shakyamuni, but he’s not my primary reference point.

    I’m beginning to wonder if your ‘Protestant’ is simply someone who does things differently from the ‘mainstream’ or ‘orthodox’ praxis, or who holds a view different from the orthodox one.

    Not at all! Protestantism is a specific series of reforms. (1) The denial that the monastic Sangha has exclusive spiritual abilities; (2) Availability of scripture in translation to lay people; (3) A shift from public ritual to private contemplation as the main religious practice. From what I understand about Triratna, it is entirely Protestant in this sense.

    (Maybe it’s worth emphasizing that “Protestant Buddhism” isn’t my invention. It’s a widely-accepted and much-discussed category in academic Buddhist Studies. It’s not altogether uncontroversial, but it’s not something I’m making up.)

    In what sense does that (or those) monastic Sangha(s) hold a religious monopoly?

    Before the Protestant Reformation of Buddhism, in Asia, it was mostly only monks who read scripture, performed public rituals, or meditated. (There were exceptions, but they were exceptional.)

    There are many such Sanghas and one is at liberty to choose between them.

    This was not true in pre-modern Asia.

    On the other hand, one is free to decline to participate in the activities of those Sanghas of which Bhikkhus are the leaders… If one doesn’t find such leadership helpful, one is free to leave.

    This was not an option before the Buddhist Protestant Reformation.

    And then again, there are non-monastic Sanghas.

    Before the Reformation, there were no such Sanghas, that I know of, with the obscure exception of the Tibetan gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé.

    Using the word “Sangha” to include lay people is, in a way, the essence of the Protestant Reformation of Buddhism.

    Best wishes,


  10. By the way—lest anyone think the Aro approach to refuge is eccentric—what that article says is a totally orthodox Nyingma view. You can find explanations of refuge written by ethnic Tibetans that say exactly the same thing (in somewhat less colloquial English). Reference on request.

  11. I must say I am puzzled by several things. First is the absence of any reference to the Vimalakirti Sutra. The sutra makes the point that lay practicioners can, in fact, teach the dharma, and, particularly, Shunyata, as well or better than monastics. By the best assessments, it was written about 100 CE, [very early in the development of Mahayana by most accounts] and may have been first translated into Chinese from an original in Gandhara in 188 CE. It was certainly very popular in China in one of its later translations in 406 CE, on a par with the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.

    This was, of course, well before the Reformation.

    Then there is the issue of the open spread of Buddhist tantra among lay mahasiddhas and charnel ground yogis [Guru Rinpoche among them] between 800 & 1100 CE, as typified in the stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas. The complexity of the major texts that emerged in the period suggests that simpler originals may have been practiced as early as 600 CE and claims among the traditions of Vajrayana would date them much earlier as a secret tradition.

    Both the Early and Later spread of the Dharma in Tibet heavily involved lay yogis in the lines of transmission. A good sociological indicator of these things [whether you believe in his magical powers or not] are the stories linked to the songs of Milarepa. They strongly suggest a lay involvement in practice far beyond what you have described.

    Consider Machig Labdron [1055-1149 CE]. She was not only a layperson, she was a woman [and not a nun] who made a living, even in childhood, by recitation of the Prajnaparamita sutra in lay households. This hardly suggests a “lack of availability” of scripture in translation to laypeople.

    I personally do two practices of this type, one of which was transmitted by the Indian lay yogini Siddhirajni to the lay yogi Rechungpa in the 10th century for its entry into Tibet. The liturgy for the second one was written, according to its colophon, by Karmapa Mikyo Dorje [1507-1554 CE] for a generous and wealthy lay patron. This was a Dharma Protector practice requiring a serious involvement, and, however much we believe this or not, it was thought [and still is] that Protector pujas can dangerous to those who take them on and then take them lightly. So it is unlikely that Mikyo Dorje wrote it and gave it offhandedly.

    So whatever the sociological conditions in post 1800 Asia and however much laypeople in most of modern Asia merely call upon monks for their professional services, a presence of serious lay practice in earlier, pre-Western, Buddhism seems to me to be unquestionable.

    Finally, there is the issue of the effectiveness of monastic vows and the monastic life. One thing I think is certain that you have overlooked: the preservation and transmission of Buddhism as a whole, and particularly of its texts, is largely a monastic phenomenon, due primarily to the organization and leisure embodied in the monastic institutions. Insofar as we have any access to the original Buddhist teachings, it is the work of monks. Monks also have clearly been the “professionals” capable of a wider range of teachings because of their more in depth study of many different texts.

    Further, I can attest from experience that Foundation Practices written largely for monastic use are very difficult to practice in the absence of at least Sojong vows and a 24/7 practice environment. Few laypeople finish them, and those who do take much longer than anyone in retreat. I can also attest to the personal transformation, whether “magical” or merely psychological that finishing them causes. For whatever reason, [whether “purification” and “merit” or some more acceptable scientific term or other] they make the practices which follow them much more easy to take on and continue than before. That vows make it easier to accomplish such completion is about as objective a testimony to their effectiveness and power as any we are likely to have. They work. This is a major reason why the monastic sangha has endured for 2500 years.

  12. Hi, Karmakshanti,

    As you know, I practice in a non-monastic, yogic tradition, in which lay people have been prominent teachers. Machig Labrdön is counted one of the main transmitters of the lineage, and the 84 Mahasiddhas and Vimalakirti inspiring forerunners. (Cool quote from Ngak’chang Rinpoche:

    It is seriously pertinent not to misinterpret the First Noble Truth as a statement which denigrates the body and the world. The First Noble Truth does not state that the body or the world are in themselves unsatisfactory, but that our experience is characterised in that way. This is quite evident in the Vimalakirti Sutra in which Shakyamuni Buddha, in answer to a question about the imperfection of human life and conditions, says that he sees no such unsatisfactory life or conditions. They are illusory. The world is perfect as it is.

    ) So, I agree strongly with everything you say!

    But, in this series I’m tracing the history of current mainstream Western Buddhism. To understand why it is the way it is, it’s critical to understand the transformations Buddhism went through over the past 150 years, which includes incorporating Protestant ideas that had been alien to the mainstream of traditional Buddhism.

    As I wrote, “Protestant” ideas “are not entirely absent in traditional Buddhism.” The non-monastic, tantric-yogic thread has been in Buddhism from the beginning (if we take the Vimalakirti Sutra as history). But it has always been a very small minority, even in Tibet.

    I believe that Western Buddhism would have done better to have started from that small thread, rather than by trying to adapt monastic practices for lay people. We can’t know if that’s true; but it’s not too late to try again! I’ll be writing more about that soon.


  13. Here are the first six of your “Protestant” Buddhist ideas:

    # Everyone can potentially attain enlightenment
    # Religious practice is your personal responsibility; no one can do it for you
    # You don’t necessarily have to have help from monks to practice Buddhism effectively
    # Non-monks can teach Buddhism; celibacy is not essential to religious leadership
    # Ordinary people can and should meditate; meditation is the main Buddhist practice
    # Careful observation of your own inner thoughts and feelings is the essence of meditation

    Every single one of these is taught and has been taught among the Kagyudpa, monastic or lay, since Tilopa in the late 900s. I have been explicitly taught exactly these things by a monastic root guru who trained entirely in Tibet before the Chinese invasion and certainly had never heard of Protestantism before at least 1960 and probably much later.

    This is really no big secret. I can’t speak for the other Tibetan traditions, but but books by and about Tibetan Kagyudpas, particularly the namthars and writings of the earliest Kagyu lineage holders–Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa–have been available for over 30 years and every one of these six ideas is present, either explicitly or implicitly, in all of them.

    For example, of those four people, only two became, and only one remained, a monastic.

    Also present in them, either explicitly or implicitly, is the rejection of every one of the 13 things you present as “traditional” Buddhism.

    Most modern writing by Tibetan Kagyus is completely consistent with this. And the actual practices of both Kagyu monks and laypeople, whether Asian or Western, largely reflect this.

    As far as the other major issues [ritual, “magic”, “gods or spirits or demons”, text translation, and Buddhist institutions] Kagyudpas have things to say about all of them that are internally consistent and coherent, but bear little resemblance to any of the other ideas, whether “Protestant” or “traditional” that you have mentioned.

    To even address these, we’d have to start from scratch.

  14. Karmakshanti,

    It is nice that those things were taught in Tibet. It is too bad that Tibetans didn’t teach them outside of Tibet or let non-Tibetans into Tibet on a regular basis before a bit over 50 years ago. Citing Tibetan examples for the development of Buddhism outside of Tibet (in either Asia or the West) is not terribly useful for these reasons. :-)

  15. I’m sorry, but it’s way too glib to stuff Buddhist history into a western historical conceptual framework. You can make the model “fit,” yes, but only ignoring significant differences between Christianity and Buddhism. For example, ritual and scripture play very different roles in Buddhism than in Christianity.

    For that matter, your article seems to assume there was a pan-Asian Buddhist establishment analogous to pre-Reformation Catholicism, and there was nothing at all like that. There has been a huge diversity of Asian Buddhist traditions functioning entirely independently of each other for many centuries.

    Your statement “Ritual is not necessary; it’s a late cultural accretion on the original, rational Buddhist teachings” reveals a western understanding of ritual, and no school of Buddhism has abandoned its traditional forms. So that one doesn’t even make sense.

    Several of the attributes you assign to “Protestant” Buddhism have been found in many Mahayana schools for centuries; they didn’t just spring up suddenly in the 19th century. This is true of items 1-7, for example. These are all points of doctrine long established in several Mahayana schools, centuries before Christian missionaries showed up. You can find married lay teachers in Jodo Shinshu going back to the 13th century, for example.

    As I already said, Item 8 is just off. So is Item 9; application of “magic” can be found drizzled around Asia, but throughout Buddhist history in many schools it was considered something to be avoided. The esoteric schools (Tibetan; Shingon) are outliers in that regard, not typical of the rest of Buddhism. It’s true that many things that were believed in literally in earlier centuries became allegorical in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that has to do more with the introduction of science than anything else.

    Items 10 and 11 fail to differentiate between what might be called “popular” Buddhism, in which laypeople adopt Buddhist imagery as animistic gods; and “formal” Buddhism, which generally doesn’t.Tantric Buddhism is something else entirely, and no one with a modicum of understanding of vajrayana would equate tantric dieties with worshiping idols. Item 12 dosn’t really relate to Buddhism in Asia anywhere, and the last items again is coming from a western mindset, as Buddhism never had a concept of sacredness exactly like Christianity.

    It’s true that many schools of Buddhism re-thought and re-organized themselves as a result of Christian mission work, but not in the ways you suggest. Soto Zen in Japan, for example, went through a process of clarifying exactly how it differed from Rinzai, based on the writings of Dogen Zenji. But this was nothing like a Protestant Reformation, since Soto and Rinzai had been separate schools for centuries, and Dogen lived in the 13th century. So this was not a break from an older tradition, but a re-affirmation of an older tradition.

  16. Oh, and the idea that everyone can attain enlightenment, including laypeople, has been around at least since the second century CE, if not sooner. For example, it was expressed clearly in both the Vimalakirti and Lotus sutras, both of which probably originated around 200 CE, give or take, These sutras are hardly obscure texts; one or the other of them is influential in most schools of Mahayana .

  17. “(Maybe it’s worth emphasizing that “Protestant Buddhism” isn’t my invention. It’s a widely-accepted and much-discussed category in academic Buddhist Studies. It’s not altogether uncontroversial, but it’s not something I’m making up.)”

    In the 19th and early 20th centuries, yes. I’m no fan of western academia regarding Buddhist studies, but I doubt that’s been taught anywhere for 50 or 60 years. The professors are on to new stupid affectations these days.

  18. Hi, Barbara,

    Welcome back…

    You raise a number of points, requiring a somewhat lengthy reply. I’m unusually busy just at the moment, so it may take me a couple of days to get to them—sorry about that!—but I will respond in detail when I get a chance.


  19. Sorry for the long delay. I have been occupied with non-Buddhist affairs; it looks like I will have little time for writing (pages or comment replies) for several more weeks.

    your article seems to assume there was a pan-Asian Buddhist establishment analogous to pre-Reformation Catholicism

    I hope I didn’t imply that. Rather, the Buddhist establishment in each region had characteristics similar to pre-Reformation Catholicism. I’d agree strongly that they were diverse in terms of official doctrines, but the institutional structures seem to have been pretty similar.

    Your statement “Ritual is not necessary; it’s a late cultural accretion on the original, rational Buddhist teachings” reveals a western understanding of ritual, and no school of Buddhism has abandoned its traditional forms.

    Both Japanese and Thai modernizers de-emphasized, and sometimes almost entirely eliminated, ritual, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (I wrote about that in some detail here and here.) Although those modernizers are revered in Japan and Thailand, they had somewhat limited impact on common practice. However, it is the forms of Buddhism that were already modernized in Asia that have mainly been transplanted to the West. That’s the reason I’m writing about this. Current “Consensus” Buddhism is based on forms that are authentically Asian (they were invented by King Mongkut, D.T. Suzuki, and others) but which were in turn based on Western religious and philosophical ideas. Those went to Asia and then came back—which is why they make so much sense to us. But are those ideas right? Recovering their Western roots makes it easier to ask that question.

    Several of the attributes you assign to “Protestant” Buddhism have been found in many Mahayana schools for centuries; they didn’t just spring up suddenly in the 19th century. This is true of items 1-7, for example.

    Yes, these points can be found in scripture. What I’m looking into here is what most people actually believed and did. The historical and anthropological studies I’ve read of Buddhism suggest that almost everywhere, almost all Buddhists’ understanding of these points was the traditional one (i.e. “only monks can attain enlightenment” down to “only monks read scripture”). Unquestionably there were exceptions here and there. For example, I practice in the Tibetan ngakpa tradition, which is inherently non-monastic. However, it was always a tiny minority. I know very little about Chinese Mahayana; perhaps exceptions there were more common.

    application of “magic” can be found drizzled around Asia, but throughout Buddhist history in many schools it was considered something to be avoided

    Yes, you can find admonitions against magical practices in (for example) the Pali Canon. But I’m interested in what people actually do. The Pali Canon was essentially unknown in Asia in the early 1800s; virtually no one could read it, and the few who could mostly didn’t. It was rediscovered by Europeans. In practice, Theravada monks extensively engaged in magical practices (fortune telling, good-luck charms, exorcisms, etc.). And they still do! Even though they now are likely to have read the sections of the Canon that say they shouldn’t. This isn’t a marginal thing; it’s totally common in Thailand.

    Items 10 and 11 fail to differentiate between what might be called “popular” Buddhism, in which laypeople adopt Buddhist imagery as animistic gods; and “formal” Buddhism, which generally doesn’t.

    Yes—this is a key point, and may be why you misunderstood my post. I am writing here about the Buddhism people practice, not a theoretical Buddhism based on someone’s interpretation of scripture. Actual Asian Buddhism—popular Buddhism—is only vaguely related to scripture, and “animistic” is a decent description.

    “Formal” Buddhism, based on scripture, was only invented about 120 years ago—and that is the central point here. The idea that Buddhism ought to be based on scripture is the essence of what scholars call “Protestant Buddhism”. (Of course, Buddhist scripture has always been venerated; but almost always, it has been admired from a distance and ignored in practice.)

    no one with a modicum of understanding of vajrayana would equate tantric dieties with worshiping idols

    Tibetans—including high Lamas—understand empowered statues as being actually inhabited by the deities they depict. The composite statue-deity is then worshipped. This is discussed in David McMahan’s book, for instance. I’ve also seen this myself and discussed it with Tibetans.

    Item 12 [“All reverence is due to the monastic, institutional Sangha”] dosn’t really relate to Buddhism in Asia anywhere, and the last item [“Everyday life is defiled, contaminating, and must be abandoned”] again is coming from a western mindset

    These two are central facts of Theravada as it is typically understood and practiced in Asia. Any anthropological study would say so. I’m somewhat baffled that you could disagree. I could provide citations if you like, but there seems to be a deeper level of miscommunication here, so I’m not sure that would be useful?

    the idea that everyone can attain enlightenment, including laypeople, has been around at least since the second century CE, if not sooner. For example, it was expressed clearly in both the Vimalakirti and Lotus sutras

    Yes… I think the misunderstanding here is around what [some] scripture says versus what [most] people believed and practiced.

    And that’s really the point of “Protestant Buddhism”. The “Protestant” idea (in both Buddhism and Christianity) is that scripture—not tradition and institutions—defines the religion. It would seem that you are taking that Protestant dogma for granted, and are perhaps unaware of how atypical it is in Buddhist history before the late 1800s.

    Of course, again, this is a matter of degree, not an absolute. Some Buddhists have always read scripture and thought it important. And those tend to be the ones we read about, because they go on to become the great reformers, who create new lineages by dragging practice around to their personal interpretations of scripture. But then the new interpretation and system of practice rapidly becomes traditional and institutionalized, and nearly all Buddhists simply followed uncritically.

    “(Maybe it’s worth emphasizing that “Protestant Buddhism” isn’t my invention. It’s a widely-accepted and much-discussed category in academic Buddhist Studies. It’s not altogether uncontroversial, but it’s not something I’m making up.)” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, yes. I’m no fan of western academia regarding Buddhist studies, but I doubt that’s been taught anywhere for 50 or 60 years.

    The term was first used in 1970 by Obeyesekere (41 years ago). The first major study was his book with Gombrich in 1988. My current blog series is heavily influenced by McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, from 2008; it is roughly a third about Protestant Buddhism. A Google Scholar search shows 294 academic publications on the topic within the last ten years.

  20. I think I am unequivocally a Protestant Buddhist. I was ticked of recently for referring to Sujato (a bhikkhu) by his name instead of “Bhante”. I realised that I felt quite strongly about not calling a monk “Bhante” and that the use of honorifics seemed like a symptom of something unhealthy to me. I’ve no time for priests, least of all Buddhist priests.

    Problems with scripture: who gets to decide what they mean?
    we *all* do. But we aim for a consensus by communicating our insights, and having discussions – which anyone can join. Contra Barbara’s intemperate comments, we scholars have a major contribution to make in making scripture accessible to all by providing contemporary translations, and discussion on the languages, the concepts, and history of Buddhist ideas and culture. It’s what I do. Though of course I am an amateur scholar (and blogger). To scorn scholars is nonsensical. They are a great asset. One only has to look at the reading lists at the end of one of your posts, or mine, to realise this.

    The good news is that the idea that scripture is “True” seems to be dead or dying – I’m stabbing it vigorously, but it’s still twitching. What it means is less important than what it does – which ties in with your last question, even though I don’t attempt an answer.

    Problems with priests: “every man his own priest” doesn’t actually work
    Does it not? Getting rid of the bald guys & gals in skirts does not mean that there are no experienced practitioners who can mentor students. To paraphrase: the central message of Protestantism is not “every man for himself”. I can turn to many senior peers for advice, some of whom really do know what they’re talking about. And I don’t have to bow, use titles or honorifics, or personally enrich them (I might pay to stay at a retreat centre, but the teacher has no fee). It’s not that we are suddenly all equal. I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that some people are more talented and accomplished than I am – in any field. I also find the serious meditators are genuinely interested in my scholarship and we have interesting dialogues!

    Problems with meditation: what does it really do?
    I think this question requires a bit more unpacking so I won’t attempt an answer.

    BTW Gombrich will be talking at the Cambridge Buddhist Society on 25th Nov. He’s usually good value. I’ll be there.

  21. I seem to be a little less Protestant than you, although as I said I think the Buddhist Reformation has been mostly a good thing.

    Regarding “priests.” This word has narrower and wider meanings. A wide sense is “an ordained religious person,” which would include you! And scholarship has been one of the main priestly functions in both Buddhism and Christianity. (So what makes you not a priest?) Another important function is mentoring students in study, practice, and life.

    So, maybe your objection is to particular social conventions that surround Buddhist leaders, rather than priesthood as such? Or is it the monastic system specifically? Or to the ritual role of priests? Or…?

    I’m tentatively planning a post suggesting that non-monastic ordination is important to Western Buddhism. That is, we need priests (in a broad sense of the word, arguably including yourself) who are not monks or nuns. I don’t really know much about the Triratna ordination, which I’d certainly want to write about. Can you recommend something on that?

    On the scripture question. One way I am less Protestant than you is that I find more value, personally, in the informal tradition of explanation than in scripture. In the Nyingma and Kagyud schools, and in Zen, it’s explicitly acknowledged that this is a separate lineage of understanding, and that it is of greater importance (to those schools) than scripture. As an example, I’ve written elsewhere that informal explanations of emptiness in terms of transparency, discontinuity, ambiguity, and so forth, seem more useful than the scriptural explanations in terms of existence and non-existence.

    The informal lineage is less beholden to past errors, and so seems capable of making more rapid advances in understanding. This is not to suggest that we can do without scripture, or that elucidating it is not hugely valuable, however.

  22. Dear David,
    I come late to a very interesting debate!
    My comment refers to your account of Roman Catholicism in Europe. I feel that it may suffer from the same error some of your respondents make, when they take your account of Really Existing Asian Buddhism for one that is answerable to scripture, rather than actual vernacular practice.
    Do you know the work of Eamon Duffy? I can’t recommend his book the Voices of Morebath highly enough.
    His account of everyday life in a Devon village before and after the Reformation, based on a diary kept by the parish priest, is eye-opening. Few in the village were ‘poor’ in any clichéd sense of the term, and they had a huge number (100+?) festival days a year for all the different saints they ‘practiced’. Each saint had a society that was responsible for organising the relevant festivities. As a result, most of the spare cash generated in the village, instead of accumulating within families and thus leading to greater social inequality, was rapidly spent on beer and on acquiring religious art for the church. Most of this activity was self-organising to a large extent, and the church seems to have had little role other than to generally approve of the whole business. Duffy claims that this situation was common, not unusual, and that it was one of the main reasons for the English Reformation: the Crown wanted to get its hands on all the money currently being ‘wasted’ on huge parties, in order to finance bigger and better wars against the French, and abolishing the cult of saints was a precondition for that. The consequences for ordinary people were not sudden access to a more democratic spirituality, but the wiping out of everything that had held their communities together for many generations. (Including the pre-Christian substratum on which many of these practices were based).
    When I read this book some years ago, it made me feel that mediaeval England may have been more like Tibet than I realised – tho not quite in the ways you imply. It certainly made me question my assumption that pre-Reformation Christianity had been effectively dominated by a top-down monopoly of the Church on everything sacred.
    Thanks for all the work you are doing. I’m enjoying reading your blog (including back issues) very much.

  23. Hi, Peter,

    Thanks—that was very interesting! I read some other summaries of the Morebath book on the web.

    In Buddhism as well as Christianity, it seems to me that—as you suggest—Protestant-style reformation was driven largely by the desire of secular rulers to consolidate power, over and against the church.

    Tibet is a very complicated case. (I’m reading more about it now.) Because it is huge and barely populated and the mountains and rivers and deserts make travel so difficult, it never had a strong central power. It was always a patchwork of disparate local systems, and that makes generalization very difficult. Still, the reforms introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama (early 20th Century) were loosely Protestant in style, and definitely motivated by the desire to create a strong central government. (For better or worse!)


  24. Hi David,
    I spent two summers in Ladakh some ten years ago, in each case living with a Ladakhi family,; and the first year, working with them in their fields. I wasn’t very interested in Buddhism before I want there (tho it was in a bookshop in Leh that I first came across one of Ngakchang Rinpoche’s books!). My impression os Buddhism in Ladakh at that time, was that young educated people had a ‘protestant’ style understanding of a religion which provided individual salvation through individual effort. Older people had a relation to religion mainly through the fact that the landscape itself was entirely ritualised. You couldn’t go anywhere without, in effect, remembering something, practicing something, just by the way you passed a certain place, spun a prayer wheel, circumambulated a mani wall. And all of these rituals could doubtless be read on numerous levels.
    The father of the house I lived in the first year spent all his spare cash on religious art, and the monks at the monastery just below would often walk back with me at night from town rolling drunk (it was harvest season).
    I came away with the impression of a religion that was largely about (1) seeing the whole landscape as sacred, inhabited, full of presences(s) and drama; and (2) staying up late, drinking too much, telling lewd jokes, and singing at the top of your voice.
    Many years later I read Pascale Dollfus’ book Lieu de neige et de génièvres, and came to the conclusion I may not have been totally wide of the mark:)évriers-Organisation-communautés/dp/2271063698/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327277033&sr=1-3
    (It’s only in French, but she’s also published lots of articles in English).


  25. Oops! I realise I have made Ms Dollfus write a book called ‘Place of snow and different types of gin’, that should of course be ‘Place of snow and juniper bushes’ (Genévriers)

  26. How interesting… both that you’d find Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s books for sale in Leh (a place where he spent a little time, btw, although that’s probably unrelated), and your account of Ladakhi religion.

    On the first point, I expect that the trend for Buddhisms to be reimported from the West back into Asia—as Asia modernizes, but maintains Buddhist sympathies—will accelerate. Educated Asians live in the same globalized world we do, and increasingly want the same things from Buddhism we do.

    On the second, that reminds me of my own time (much less than yours) hanging out with religious lay people in the Himalayan backcountry. Made me nostalgic. There’s lots of things about that kind of religion that wouldn’t work for me, but much also to enjoy and respect.


  27. Oh, and small-town monks, who definitely enjoy their chang! [That’s home-brewed beer, for those who are unfamiliar with it.]

    Here’s an excerpt from a letter I wrote Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, dated 27 December 2003.

    Sometimes I find myself in an a situation that is clearly not me, with no explanation for how this could have happened, producing a sense of surreal dislocation. For example, a month ago I found myself working as a waiter in the restaurant attached to a Hindu temple in Malaysia, due presumably to some causal chain that I could not begin to reconstruct. My ability to laugh and ecstatically go with such situations (“I’ve no clue why how or why am I here, nor do I have the foggiest idea how to be a waiter in general, much less in a Malaysian Hindu temple restaurant, but I will do the absolute best job I can and enjoy it thoroughly, because why not”) seems to be the best measure of my health at the level of rLung.

    Here, the most important religious practice in an individual’s life is the Annual Ritual. This is a house-and-family-blessing ritual. A crew of monks are hired to provide the requisite clangs, blaats, and hocus-pocus in the house’s shrine room (every house has one). While they are in there performing the ritual, the head of household participates in a small way. Mostly, however, the Annual Ritual is an excuse to invite all your friends and extended family over for some serious drinking (in the rest of the house). Exactly how this can be the most important religious practice in an individual’s life, I don’t understand, since the practice seems to be done by the monks almost exclusively. This is part of the general paradox that everyday life here is thoroughly infused with religious practice, and yet in a sense they don’t seem to practice at all. (They pay monks to do it for them.)

    Anyway, yesterday I found myself inexplicably in the shrine room of a house undergoing Annual Ritual, helping the monks.

    Mostly they knew the liturgy by heart, which obviously I didn’t, and there was no spare copy of the text, and in any case I can’t read Tibetan fast enough to keep up. So my participation was mostly restricted to throwing rice at appropriate moments, and joining in on the very occasional bits of liturgy I recognized (such as Guru Rinpoche ngak).

    Whereas drinking alcohol is in general a sin that guarantees reincarnation in hell, it is apparently not a sin when it is part of Annual Ritual.

    Even for monks.

    Even for child monks. The crew included a five- and a seven-year old, who together played a gyaling [Tibetan oboe] duet beautifully, and who consumed considerably more than their fair share of chang.

  28. Ah yes Tibet, the paradise of underage drinking…)
    Sometimes I wonder whether, when people pay monks or whoever to do some religious practice for them, it isn’t (partly, sometimes) because they ‘know’ that the monks’ practice isn’t the really important (powerful) one, but you might as well get it done if you can afford it, just in case. And then the really important practice would be the one you do the rest of the time – in private, in a completely different context, or in a way that is so completely integrated with the rest of your life, that unless you do the same practice yourself, you would never know that what was happening WAS a religious practice….

  29. I just started reading your blog a couple of days ago, and enjoying it very much. I’m an historian in a crisis of faith (hoping soon to be a lapsed historian) but I am very happy and encouraged to see how well you use good historical research as a provocative way to grapple with concerns that are both contemporary and ‘spiritual’/meaningful. Historians could learn from this.
    I especially like this post because my girlfriend is Thai. I recognize much of what your ‘traditional’ Buddhism as still practices in rural Thailand. The two lists at the beginning of the post are wonderful–I’ve never seen the differences so clearly and starkly presented. (Between Protestant, Tantra and “traditional” Buddhism, you have quite a tricycle of entirely divergent views!).
    The description you give of traditional Buddhism takes up the perspective of the monks. Some things look a bit different from the lay perspective–although I think it augments rather than contradicts your description. In particular, lay Buddhists see themselves as crucial to maintaining the sangha, and would be skeptical of any claims that the monks are the sole holder of the dharma.
    Lay Buddhism is definitely the exact opposite of the Gombrich-Obeyesekere description of Protestant Buddhism, in that there is great respect for the robe but rarely much for individual monks. The institution itself is necessary for the transmission of merit; and the celibacy, chanting and proper eating habits of monks are a necessary part of the smooth flow of merit. But most Thais are very skeptical about the spiritual attainments of monks themselves, that the Shangha somehow has privileged access to the dharma, and that normal life is defiled. If there is any spiritual advantage to being a monk, it is only because they don’t have to work and take care of families, and thus have more free time to chant. And this is only possible because of government subsidies and, most importantly, because of alms provided by lay practitioners. Rather than a passive audience, they see themselves and their alms as playing a crucial role in supporting the temples. They also see their their work taking care of families and trying to be ‘good’ as an important source of merit in the world–some have even suggested to me that they can produce more merit than monks can by chanting.
    At my girlfriend’s local temple, there was one monk who like to talk to me in English. He expressed lots of “Protestant” views, and criticism of the superstition of the villagers and their obsession with merit. Most villagers did not think too highly of him, saying that he didn’t do much to help the village and was obsessed with getting foreigners into his forest temple so that he could get big donations from them and plane tickets to Europe.

    The provision of food in the morning is absolutely crucial–whether by bringing it to the temple or offering it to a monk on his morning rounds. Even more than paying for rituals, this is one of the main ways of accumulating merit.

    Thai monks also like to give moral sermons after the morning prayers and chanting, and before the food is distributed. They are usually exhortations to do good deeds, not to steal, drink too much, commit adultery (which is never interpreted as a exhortation not to have as much sex as you want), be rude to your mother, hit your children, etc. I’ve assumed that this was a fairly recent “Protestant” add-on, but I’ve never read anything that can confirm my suspicion one way or the other.

  30. Thank you very much for your comment! I’ve enjoyed poking around in your blog also.

    What you say is entirely true—as far as my knowledge goes—and a helpful addition/corrective to what I said in the article.

    My impression is that nearly no Western Buddhists understand how important merit is Asian Buddhism. It’s almost the whole thing, in practice! Whereas almost no Western Buddhists take it seriously.

  31. I think you are correct, David, about the neglect of “merit”– and that it is odd. I would say that it is especially odd, because it is a concept that is very congruent with directives from Christian, especially Protestant, religions.

    So, I’m speculating that is accounted for by the actual source tradition among Western converts being some form of scientific materialism, not one of the Abrahamic faiths.

  32. That seems insightful and I expect it’s at least part of the explanation. David McMahan suggests that science—or more likely scientism—is one of the three major Western influences on modern Buddhism.

    Romanticism is another. Romanticism also rejects merit, I think. Merit is essentially external; it’s taking physical actions that accumulate credit with external entity. God, or karma. Romanticism is about internal stuff. The important thing is to be true to your true Self. External actions are much less important, and the main thing is to make them expressions of your Self. Salvation doesn’t depend on accumulating merit; it is about opening the connection between your Self and the Absolute Infinite.

    Is it the case that Protestant Christianity—McMahan’s third modern source—emphasizes merit? I don’t know its theology well, but my impression was that one of the key Protestant doctrines is sola fide: for salvation, belief in Christ is necessary and sufficient. So what you do is not so important; in which case there doesn’t seem to be much room for merit.

  33. Well I have close to zero theological knowledge; it was more an impression, from behavior noticed in churches and churchgoers, church billboards, and a dim memory of such phrases as “faith and works”, and injunctions about taking care of the poor, etc. from my not-exactly-usual Christian Science Sunday-school days. Of course, religion in this country is hopelessly entangled with the sociopolitical, for better or worse.

  34. My experience of protestant Christianity is that ‘good works’ are not necessary for salvation – faith alone brings that. Good works are seen as a natural arising from faith but not a requirement for eternal life in heaven – hence the concept of a deathbed conversion being possible. I have to say my experience of most sincere Christians is that they personally place great emphasis on good works but they certainly don’t regard it as a requirement of eternal salvation.

    This lack of weight placed on ‘good works’ seems very much in common with the western interpretation of Buddhism with minimal emphasis on merit to my humble eyes.

  35. “Engaged Buddhism” would seem to be the outstanding exception to that. It’s about good works, and doesn’t seem to involve merit. So maybe that takes us back to Kate’s hypothesis that merit is incompatible with science and/or scientism, and rejected for that reason?

    “Engaged Buddhism” certainly has a Christian feel to it. Maybe its appeal is mainly to Christians who have rejected Christian metaphysics but want to keep some sort of vague spiritual framework for the impulse to do good works.

    Apropos the Catholic/Protestant split, I’d guess “Engaged Buddhism” could be traced to the Catholic Social Teaching and particularly the Catholic Worker Movement. But that’s sheer speculation!

  36. I have read that some Tibetian Buddhists take a vow not to enter heaven (or accept nirvana) until all sentient beings have been saved from the cycle of rebirth. To me that seems to be a real strong call for action over only faith, or even the idea that only our personal development is the goal of Tibetian Buddhism.

  37. Dear David,
    I think it is a bit too late to comment on this post,however,I would like to clarify somethings.
    I am an Asian and I follow the Pali Canon ,which historians and scholars say probably contains the teachings of the historical Buddha.I wouldn’t waste my energy bothering about what is there is Theravadin commentary,Mahayana,Tibetan/Vajrayana stuff,Protestant Buddhism etc..All these are later inventions and additions but you can read them to understand various perspectives that have evolved over time.
    1.Only monks can potentially attain enlightenment : Not necessarily,I do remember reading a long time ago about laity who attained enlightenment in the Buddhas’ time itself(please check it if it was Anathapindika,Citta or an other householder,sorry I don’t remember the exact person :) ).Monks have a better chance as they have less materialistic activities to to bother them,that’s all.
    2.Ritual:Ritual is neither essential nor important part of Buddhism.The Buddha taught us no rituals.All that you see in various countries is product of cultural,popular,folk,corrupt ideas mixing with Buddhism.
    The Buddha discouraged spirit worship so what you see in Asian countries in not according to the Buddhas’ teaching.It is neither because of the Sangha nor because of the laity but due ignorance of the Buddha’s teaching or propagation of false ideas as part of Buddhism.It is wonderful to see Western Buddhism free of this cultural nonsense.Dhamma is universal,at least that is what the Buddha said.

    Buddhism isn’t a Sunday only religion.There are many Suttas which the Buddha taught to the laity ex.Sigalovada Sutta,Dighajanu Sutta,Kalama Sutta and a hundred others.The five precepts,eight fold path are meant to practiced everyday.There is nothing ritualistic about Early Buddhism, sadly it seems todays Buddhism has turned into something of that sort.Unlike before we have translations which are available quite easily and the choice is with us,instead of thinking that about tattered Buddhism we can return to Early Buddhism.

    3 & 4.There is no Buddhism without monks:True,the Sangha started for those individuals who wanted to attain Enlightenment.Laity came a bit later and are integral part of Buddhism.Monks were required earlier to teach Dhamma but now we have great lay scholars.Buddhism can exist without monks but their real purpose to is to lead a noble life and inspire laity to follow Dhamma.There may be many bad monks but there also a few sincere monks.The Buddha told the laity that they could support good monks and reject corrupt ones.(Majjhima Nikaya).The laity don’t support monks to earn merit but to enable a monk to sustain his physical body on his path to attain Nibbana.The Buddha told that in return for the alms the monk is obliged to encourage the laity to follow Dhamma in their life.Merit making is a side effect but unfortunately it is being touted as the main or only reason to give alms.
    CELIBACY: Celibacy is essential to attain Enlightenment(Nibbana) only.Having a spouse is no impediment to practise Dhamma or meditate in daily life.A monk’s aim is to attain Nibbana.Please refer the Alagaddupama Sutta(Arittha’s heresy).

    The number of monks meditating is none of our concern,the Buddha’s teachings are meant for an individual.It is no good to worry about monks,others or and their meditation.

    Gods,deities,spirits,Bodhisattvas and and other things are not beneficial.Even the Buddha himself cannot grant anyone salvation from suffering.The Buddha shows us the way and it is left to the individual to travel the path.Please check the famous Dhammapada verse on this ” Men driven by fear seek refuge on mountains, in forests, under sacred trees or at shrines. Such refuge is not secure, such refuge is not the best. Such refuge frees not a man from pain.(188-189)”.

    The Sangha is the not the holder of Dharma but an embodiment of it.Check the last words of the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta where the Buddha says that the Dhamma(i.e. the collection of teachings) is one that is respectable.The Sangha is one among the triple gem.When I say Sangha I obviously mean sincere monks and not everyone who wears the robe is sincere.The Buddha also remarked that his Sangha was fourfold i.e. Monks,Nuns,Male and Female Householders.

    It seems that you are confusing the other religions you know with Buddhism.Dhamma is no tyrannical religion or nor anything similar.There are many things that have brought disrepute to Buddhism but you must understand that it it due the fallible nature of individuals involved rather than by Dhamma itself.After all those in Asia like me are Buddhist because we identify ourselves as Buddhist not because we have have practiced Buddhism perfectly.I hope you will read more Suttas from the Pali Canon where the authentic words of the historical Buddha are found.I do not wish to degrade Mahayana or Vajrayana/Tibetan traditions but it is a fact that they came into existence long after the historical Buddha passed away,so there is no need to bother about Vimalakirti type Sutras(Vimalakirti portrays the Ven.Sariputta in a derogatory manner.The Ven.Sariputta was appreciated and praised many times as a role model by the Buddha himself).But you can always refer to these later works to understand how Buddha’s Dhamma changed over hundreds of years.

    I would like to end by saying that the laity can practice Buddhism,with or without monks,with or without the Sangha as the Dhamma is available for free on the internet.Personally,I would be happy if there is a good monk to guide me.(I stopped visiting monasteries and temples long ago but I still practise Dhamma by listening to meditation talks,reading Pali texts etc.)

    Best Regards

  38. Hi, Alec,

    My post contrasted traditional Buddhism, as practiced in the early 1800s, with modern Buddhism. As I wrote elsewhere, the modernization (and Protestantization) of Buddhism began in Thailand, when Mongkut became king in 1851. The Buddhism practiced by educated people in urban centers throughout Asia is often heavily Protestantized.

    Your Buddhism would seem to be an example. For example, you refer frequently to scripture as the ultimate authority on Buddhism, which is a Protestant innovation. The Pali Canon was almost never referred to in Theravada in 1800. In fact, it was virtually unknown. It had never been translated into local languages, and only a very few scholar-monks learned any Pali.

    Best regards

  39. @ David Chapman
    @Sabio Lantz says:June 26, 2011 at 2:09 am
    “The clarity of this post (is) enlightening and most instructive — thank you.”
    I may or may not agree on the thoughts of David Chapman but I agree with the friend Sabio Lantz; that his posts have clarity and very informative.

    Thanks and regards

  40. I am curious about your assessment of “Waking the Buddha” by Clark Strand.

    Is there anyone out there?

  41. So your an open-minded fellow, huh?

    As another aside: will you give a better explanation for why Tantra is important to Buddhism, Dave (or anyone else?)

    (I landed here in the first place because I do have an open mind. I’ll confess to being a rationalist so the ‘Protestant’ Buddhism caught my eye and the mention of ‘Tantra’ made me curious. Tho Tantra seems so foreign to Shakyamuni Buddha that I can’t understand why it is considered Buddhist.)

  42. Charles, what makes you think we actually know, for a fact, what Shakyamuni taught? Theravadan Buddhism isn’t “ancient” Buddhism. It is a modern, and changed over time, as any other form of Buddhism.

    This is leaving aside the very idea that Buddhism must somehow relate to what Shakyamuni said in order to be Buddhism. We don’t worship the Buddha (well, I certainly don’t). He was just a man who figured this stuff out first. Over the next few centuries, some people (possibly with their own agendas) wrote their interpretations of what he said, some of which survives to this day, though the commentary texts that most rely on are much later.

    What is a “rationalist,” to you? Do you consider Protestant Christianity to be “rationalist” with its “God” and supernatural Jesus that is the son of this God?

  43. Oh, and, yes, I am an open minded fellow. That said, there are more books to read than I will ever read in this lifetime so why would I read a text about a group which holds no interest to me and is only peripherally interesting? The only thing interesting about Nichiren Buddhism (or Shin Buddhism, for that matter) to me is that it has focused on the non-elite social classes historically and Buddhism, as a whole, has too often been elitist.

  44. Sorry, I missed that – your site is a little confusing (I thought I had read the latest posts.) I will read that closely.

    So, my original point here (under ‘Protestant’ Buddhism) was about Clark’s point that SGI represents a ‘new’ form of religion. For that reason I believe Clark’s book is important for Buddhism across the world (and particularly in the West.) Your breakdown was pretty much a word for word outline of SGI Buddhism. (Please drop your stereotypes when approaching my faith! Ask yourself if you believe racial stereotypes also? What you ‘think’ may not be true.)

    And I’ll make this point in case anyone is worried – I am not here to ‘convert’ anyone. I have practiced Nichiren Buddhism for almost 40 years and if I have learned anything it is that listening is often more important than talking so I am honestly open to discussion. I personally believe that Buddhism as a whole is different because it is based on honest discussion so I hope to understand the viewpoints here – not push my own.

  45. What stereotypes? Are you saying that your sect doesn’t chant the name of the Lotus Sutra as its primary practice?

    SGI may represent a new form of Buddhism. It certainly isn’t my form of Buddhism though and that’s pretty much where my concern and interest in it begins and ends.

    You seem to be taking things personally and that is unnecessary. I’m allowed to have a difference in opinion. So are you. If I believed that Nichiren had the way to awakening, I’d be a follower of his. Obviously, I’m not so I don’t think it is the way to awakening. I don’t recall the Buddha teaching the chanting of the Lotus Sutra either (since you were concerned with what the Buddha taught in regards to objections to Tantra).

  46. your site is a little confusing

    Yes, unfortunately I am using a blog to present material that doesn’t fit that structure at all. A hierarchical book organization with a table of contents would be much better. I’ve included “roadmaps” in some of the posts, to make the structure clearer.

    Your breakdown was pretty much a word for word outline of SGI Buddhism.

    Yes, although I haven’t read the particular book you mentioned, I do know a little about SGI. Scholars do consider it an example of “Buddhist Modernism” or “Protestant Buddhism,” sharing most of the features of those broader movements. Obviously it’s distinctive in some ways as well.

  47. No offense intended to you, Al (and yes I’m a little defensive about stereotypes like only chanting for material gain or mindlessly chanting a sutra title or worshipping a leader – none of which is true.) But you are the one who said, “not sure what chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra has to do with Buddhism” as if Nichiren Buddhism was not Buddhism (tho you didn’t ultimately say that.) By ‘rational’ I mean that I entertain no ‘cosmic’ claims for Buddhism. I fully embrace science and accord Buddhism respect because it combines science with humanist engagement. Mr. Strand says (and I am rearranging his phrases but not adding a word) “Nichiren… staked his life on… The idea that individuals could use it to awaken to the possibilities for change in everyday life, producing positive effects in their own lives and the lives of those around them, honoring their responsibilities to society and to the life of the planet itself…”

    The discussion here is about ‘Protestant’ Buddhism or ‘Buddhist Modernism’ and I would submit that much of what I read about the subject here is a defense of what I would consider to be ‘Old Buddhism’ and quite frankly I don’t believe that form will ever prosper in the West or anywhere else in the world at this stage of our civilization. But I do want to hear voices that disagree! I’m just stating my starting position. The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow is one the essential points of Buddhism to me (in other words, no claims about the ultimate nature of reality) so how can you have a Buddhism that engages in metaphysical speculation? Likewise, how can someone justify a system (like priests) that separates individuals when we all possess the Buddha nature? Certainly people also have different capacities but who is to say who is really qualified? (Apparently for some, Shakyamuni is not qualified!) Nichiren laid out a way to judge a teaching and it did not include the ‘authority’ of the teacher. Any ‘enlightenment’ outside of human happiness is an absurdity to me. Is it the contention of most here that ‘foolish common mortals’ (like myself) can attain some ‘enlightenment’ apart from happiness? How do you propose to teach a secret reserved only for priests to the masses? Or, do you believe that Enlightenment in this life is not possible except for priests? If that is your contention then the ‘elite’ label is well deserved and the eventual ‘withering’ of your teaching is easy to predict.

  48. much of what I read about the subject here is a defense of what I would consider to be ‘Old Buddhism’

    Hmm. Commenters here have diverse views, and some strongly argue for various “traditional” forms of Buddhism. (I sometimes amuse myself by pointing out that their “traditions” are generally only a century old, although some do go as far back as the 1600s. Then they say “But Buddha said,” and it’s a teachable moment.)

    Personally, I see little value in tradition for its own sake. I’m definitely not advocating any traditional form of Buddhism here.

    how can you have a Buddhism that engages in metaphysical speculation?

    Well, Buddhists have extensively engaged in metaphysical speculation throughout the history of the religion. So somehow they manage!

    Personally, I am anti-metaphysical, and I’ve written about that in many places. For instance, in “Tantra is anti-spiritual.”

    how can someone justify a system (like priests) that separates individuals when we all possess the Buddha nature?

    That depends on what you think “priest” means and what you think “possess Buddha nature” means.

    The issue you raise is not a problem if “priest” means “someone who is expert in a skill set.” I think we need those, and Protestant anti-clericalism is an obstacle if it opposes them. There are problems with experts, particularly religious experts, but separating people need not be one of them.

    “Buddha nature” (tathagatagarbha) is, unfortunately, an incoherent and probably unworkable concept. A nice idea, but as far as I can see, it’s inherently conflicted. I wrote about that here. For more extensive academic explanations of this, see John Dunne’s “Thoughtless Buddha, Passionate Buddha,” and John Makransky’s Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet.

    I would say that the “other-powered” schools (which I believe includes Nichiren) have the most logically sound resolution to the problems with tathagatagarbha, namely that you cannot realize Buddha nature yourself, so you have to rely on an external Buddha to pull you up. (SGI may have modified this doctrine, however? I don’t know.)

    Certainly people also have different capacities but who is to say who is really qualified?

    This is certainly a central problem for modern Buddhism. However, if one wants to go far with Buddhism, the reality is that you have to learn from other people who have gone further. So, ultimately, everyone has to make this decision themselves—or choose not to go very far.

    Any ‘enlightenment’ outside of human happiness is an absurdity to me.

    “Happiness” is not particularly associated with Enlightenment in most traditional forms of Buddhism, as you may know. Personally, I doubt the concept of “Enlightenment” is useful. I also don’t think “happiness” should be our main goal—it sets the bar way too low. We should strive to be kind and useful, at minimum.

  49. Nichiren said, “if you think the Law is outside yourself, you are embracing not the Mystic Law but an inferior teaching.” So no, the SGI does not rely on an ‘external ‘ Buddha. I would also respectfully submit that it is your idea of happiness that is limited. I am talking about the happiness of a Bodhisattva of the Earth who have vowed to save all beings. I suspect that encompasses ‘kind’ and ‘useful.’ In the Lotus Sutra when the 4 leaders of Bodhisattvas of the Earth arrive to accept the challenge of propagating the Sutra they first inquire about the Buddha’s health and well being. There is no lack of examples of the happiness of Bodhisattvas but you are right about not being able to define it or grab hold of it. The key insight is there is no intellectual way to enlightenment because it is your whole life so practices to gain ‘understandings’ are also ultimately useless. I almost exclusively use the word ‘happiness’ because I am specifically not trying to take it out of the ordinary world of experience. Do you want to live is this world or a ten foot square hut?

  50. I would also like to add that just telling people that they are already a Buddha is poor substitute for challenging them to change their lives. We all know that is the point of the Buddha Nature. Did you also know that is the point of Fundamental Darkness? (They are not two.)

    I still don’t want to live in that hut when the whole universe is open to me but to get out of the hut I have to embrace the struggle that the universe represents. I have to strive for my own happiness and the happiness of others.

  51. just telling people that they are already a Buddha is poor substitute for challenging them to change their lives.

    Indeed! Some versions of Buddhism do seem to make that mistake. The versions I like are all about changing lives.

  52. Nichiren-shu seems protestant in another major way — Street Evangelism! I was in Little Tokyo on a Sunday and there were a posse of Nichren Buddhists in Japanese robes and a large banner preaching up a storm, just like Christians.

  53. I have a fantasy that someday I’m going to stand on a street corner and preach Dzogchen. I think it would be funny as hell, but I’ve never quite gotten up the nerve. Also, no one would get the joke. I often make jokes that no one gets except me, but it’s hard to keep up for long.

  54. Have you read the Lotus sutra? Are you familiar with the concept of the Bodhisattva? Nichiren preached because the sutra requires it. If your idea of Buddhism is navel-gazing (I hesitate to use the word that more accurately applies) then why should anyone be interested in Dzogchen? If your teaching is only for the elite few then don’t be surprised when it is forgotten by history. Was Stephen Crane talking about Tantric Buddhism when he wrote:

    In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.

    I said, “Is it good, friend?”
    “It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
    “But I like it
    Because it is bitter,
    And because it is my heart.”

    Can Dzogchen’s teaching reach 70-year old grandmothers raising a 3rd generation? Can it reach 16-year old girls seeking a life in which they are respected? Or is it only suitable for people who are so stupid that they would sit in a cave and die of dehydration and exposure? (Far more stupid than anything I ever heard in a Baptist church!)

    Nichiren said, “In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas.” If this is not your goal then I submit that you are in danger of emulating the same behavior that caused the death of that unfortunate young man. If a teaching is to rise above personal prejudice and self-delusion then it must be widely applicable. That is one of the common-sense guards against making-up your own teaching and wandering off into an irrelevant delusion.

  55. Have you read the Lotus sutra?


    Are you familiar with the concept of the Bodhisattva?

    Yes, that’s a fundamental teaching in every Mahayana and Vajrayana sect. (Did you not know it was?)

    If your idea of Buddhism is navel-gazing

    What would give you that idea?

    One of the main points of my “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” series is that tantra is about acting in the real world, and that that’s the kind of Buddhism that seems most useful now.

    why should anyone be interested in Dzogchen?

    One common reason is that it’s about the inseparability of Buddhism and everyday life.

    If your teaching is only for the elite few then don’t be surprised when it is forgotten by history.

    That is a valid criticism of Tibetan class prejudice. It applies much less to Vajrayana (including Dzogchen) as it is taught, openly, in the West.

    Vajrayana is probably not suitable for everyone, though. I don’t think any single system can be; people are too different. Fortunately, there are many different religions, appropriate for different people.

    “It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
    “But I like it
    Because it is bitter,

    You seem not to know anything about Vajrayana/Tantra/Dzogchen. One of its most central points is that it values enjoyment, and is opposed to asceticism. I wrote about that here, in a post you commented on. (Did you actually read the post before commenting?) It’s also explained in any introductory book.

    Can Dzogchen’s teaching reach 70-year old grandmothers raising a 3rd generation?

    Yes, there are many of those in my sangha.

    Can it reach 16-year old girls seeking a life in which they are respected?

    Yes, also that. Another distinctive feature of Buddhist Tantra is that it says women have a greater talent for practice than men do.

    Or is it only suitable for people who are so stupid that they would sit in a cave and die of dehydration and exposure?

    I wrote about that incident here and here. Those people were idiots. They were not practicing Vajrayana; they were off in outer space. They had been told by their teachers not to do what they were doing, and then kicked out of the system when they refused to stop.

    Nichiren said, “In Buddhism, that teaching is judged supreme that enables all people, whether good or evil, to become Buddhas.” If this is not your goal…

    That is the goal of every Mahayana and Vajrayana system.

    I am getting the impression that you have read the SGI summaries of other Buddhist sects and are trying to argue with them on that basis. Those summaries are highly inaccurate. If you want a genuine dialog—or to actually convince anyone—you are going to have to learn much more.

    I would suggest that you learn the basics of other brands of Buddhism, using their own introductory texts, if you want to talk to other Buddhists. If you argue on the basis of SGI’s explanations for why every other sect is doing it wrong, you’ll just sound aggressive and ignorant.

    (I appreciate that you have been polite, however!)

  56. I am not using any SGI explanation. Do you spend time explaining Nichiren in your sect? I am trying to be polite. I will attempt to read texts. However, I believe it is straight forward enough to answer why I should bother to read texts when the people influenced by those texts make so many fundamental errors in their practice that they kill themselves. I can only ascribe that result to your own words, “Vajrayana is probably not suitable for everyone…” I don’t see how you can square that with “all people, …become Buddhas.” To me (and I say that to emphasize that it is not an SGI position but only words of Nichiren that make sense to me thru my experience) a teaching that is not suitable for everyone is a teaching that is open to error. In other words, it could easily result in the death of a human being and the death of a human being is no small thing.

    (Last post – I will go away and read. Thank you for your openness and generosity!)

  57. That poem is awesome, Charles. Thank you for that. I wish you wouldn’t leave…the conversation was just getting interesting.

  58. Five Ghost Fist wrote: “Nichiren-shu seems protestant in another major way — Street Evangelism!”

    When I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University (nearly three decades ago), I was studying one day in the Memorial Union when I was approached by a young woman who wanted to recruit me to attend a Nichiren Shoshu of America event. I did a little bit of reading about Soka Gakkai International and its American arm, and decided not to attend.

  59. There is a fundamental fallacy in your argument about traditional Buddhism. East Asian Buddhism and the Southern Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism) are almost totally two different animals just as European Christianity and middle East Islam (even though the two are Abrahamic religion).

    For example, you mention the fact that virtually nobody could read the Pali cannon (including even monks). From that, you draw a conclusion that scriptures were not widely read even among monks in traditional Buddhism but revered only from a distance. However, in Eastern Asian Buddhism, scriptures WERE widely read even in Zen tradition. You can see from well known traditional Zen literature that scriptures were not only revered from a distance, but actually quoted often even by Zen monks.

    It’s not only you, but many western Buddhists often fail to be aware the fact that Eastern Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism are as much different each other as Christianity and Islam (or Judaism).

  60. I also find Protestant Buddhism more appealing than Traditional Buddhism, but I do not understand the appeal of Protestant Buddhism over Protestantism itself. Do you ever consider converting (back?) to Protestant Christianity? A large part of the appeal of Buddhism among Westerners has always been that it gives an ancient and mysterious origin story to beliefs that low church Protestants held anyway. If it isn’t true that it gives those beliefs an ancient and mysterious past, probably low church Protestants should remain low church Protestants.

  61. Al, reportedly atheism is not a deal-breaker in some sects!

    Oliver, after questioning that “ancient and mysterious past” I briefly got involved with Liberal Quakerism, which is remarkably close to what David calls “Consensus Buddhism”. I was moderately impressed, though ultimately I didn’t stay.

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