The Buddhist Geeks Conference rocks

I am at the Buddhist Geeks Conference in L.A.

It’s extraordinary. There’s a level of enthusiasm, engagement, excitement here far beyond what I’ve experienced at any large Buddhist gathering. It totally rocks.

It’s making me feel more optimistic about Buddhism than that I have in many years—perhaps ever. It’s not so much the intellectual content (although some of that has been remarkable) as the vibe of “we can do things differently, and create an unexpected future for our religion.”

I may write a more detailed post in a few days when I’ve thought things through. For now, this is just to say wow, you oughtta be here!

(You can get a sense of the excitement by reading the #bgeeks11 Twitter hashtag.)

Buddhism is a conversation

One other thought.  Vince Horn, the primary organizer of the conference, opened it by saying that his goal was to bring about interesting conversations.  (With the other organizers, he’s succeeded.)

I was reminded of these words from Robert Sharf, in an interview in Tricycle (about Buddhist Modernism):

Q: Before you referred to Buddhism as a critique of all essences, including the idea that there is some essence in Buddhism that is transmitted over time. So, then, what is Buddhism?

A: One way of looking at Buddhism is as a conversation, and this conversation has been going on now for over two thousand years—a long time… It is a conversation about what it is to be a human being: why we suffer, how we can resolve our suffering, what works, what doesn’t, and so forth. These are big issues, and whichever one you choose to look at, you are not going to find a single Buddhist position. There have always been different positions, and these would be debated and argued. But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture—a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices—without which there could be no real conversation…

You are confronted with many answers that generate new sets of questions and perspectives. But it is important, I think, that we keep the conversation going here. It opens one up to dramatically different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. Through our participation we help shape the conversation, and the conversation, in turn, shapes us. To abandon it would be to lose something precious.

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Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism

Let us turn now, O sisters and brothers, to the Satipatthana Sutta, I:1:6:

If a monk sees a corpse dead one, two, or three days—swollen, blue and festering—he should think: “My own body is of the same nature; such it will become, and will not escape it.”

His mindfulness is established, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.

And if a monk sees a corpse thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms—

Or a body reduced to a skeleton, with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons—

Or a skeleton, blood-besmeared and without flesh—

Or reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions—here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone; the pelvis, spine and skull—

He should apply this perception to his own body.

This is one of the most important types of meditation in Asian Buddhism.

Preferably, you should go to a charnel ground, where corpses are dumped to rot or be eaten by wild animals. Examine the bodies closely, in these various stages of decomposition. If you can’t get to a charnel ground, high-resolution photographs are the next best thing.

The Satipatthana Sutta is the classic explanation of vipassana. Most current Western vipassana systems are based on it. Influential Asian teachers highly recommend this corpse practice as a part of vipassana. Yet it seems not to be overwhelmingly popular among Western Buddhists. Why is that?

I think the answer points directly to the central failing of mainstream Western Buddhism. I’ll get to that later in this post. First, let’s look at how and why corpse practice works.

Continue reading “Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism”

What got left out of “meditation”?

Buddhist meditation methods have been forced through a series of filters over the last 120 years:

  • Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.
  • Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.
  • Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.
  • Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.

But is that the only practice we need? Is it the best practice for most Western Buddhists now?

How high a price are we willing to pay for ideological correctness? Do we want to restrict ourselves to meditation methods that were acceptable to Christian missionaries in the 1800s?

Many Western Buddhists may be unaware of how much they have lost. In this overview post, I’ll briefly describe some types of Buddhist meditation that were eliminated from the Western mainstream. In the next few posts, I’ll explain why some of them might be hugely valuable, maybe even critical to Buddhism’s survival—though they may squick some people.

Continue reading “What got left out of “meditation”?”

The essence of all religions?

Some people think it goes something like this:

“Through social and cultural conditioning, we each build a false self—an ego—and imagine that is who we really are.

This ego is a harmful illusion that prevents us from perceiving reality as it truly is.

Meditation gradually strips away the layers of ego. Buried deep within, we find our true selves.

This true self is radiant, pure, undivided, perfectly simple.

Our true self is none other than Ultimate Reality itself—or is directly, intimately, organically connected with that Eternal Absolute Infinite, which is the entire universe.

The essence of all religions is the transformative perception of that magical connection to all beings. It is the profound, non-conceptual experience of the Oneness of the universe.

This is heart and the path and the goal of Buddhism: the mystical experience of enlightenment.”

This is an attractive story, with a compelling logic. It is accepted without question in “Consensus Buddhism.”

I think it’s entirely wrong. It’s also almost right—so it’s a bit hard to see how wrong it is.

I think it matters that it is wrong. This is not just a matter of definitions, or sterile intellectual debate.

Here’s a really short version of why it’s wrong:

  • There isn’t a true self. (This is as close to an essence as most versions of Buddhism have got…)
  • There isn’t an Absolute Infinite, either. (That’s not what emptiness, or nirvana, or other Buddhist abstractions are.)
  • Most Buddhists, for the past couple thousand years, would have disagreed that mystical experience is the essence of Buddhism. Most would probably not have recognized it as being Buddhist at all.

Here’s a really short version of why it matters:

  • This story leads to meditating in a particular way. Other stories lead to other ways of meditating.
  • If your meditation aims at perceiving and unifying two things that don’t exist, you’ll be disappointed.
  • Worse, you are likely to miss what meditation actually can provide.
  • And, this misunderstanding leads you to dismiss valuable parts of Buddhism because they don’t produce mystical experiences.

This may take a whole lotta ’splainin’. The next several posts in this blog series will look at how different understandings of meditation have shaped Consensus Buddhism.

The mystical story is a modern, Western one. The reason many find it attractive and compelling is that it seems to solve the fundamental “problems of modernity.” It can also be found in some Buddhisms, which is part of why Buddhism is popular in the West.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to explain the “problems of modernity,” and why mystical experience seems like a solution. I’ll end by saying just a little about a better alternative.

The disenchantment and reenchantment of the world

1. Tradition: meaning is external and eternal

Before modernity, there was tradition. The traditional world was full of magic and meaning. Meaning was out there: in gods, demons, spirits, sacred places, idols, and saints. Meaning was unquestioned and unchanging.

In the traditional world, your identity was automatically defined by your fixed place in the eternal cosmic order.

In traditional Christianity, there was God, who was a bad-tempered guy in the sky; and people had souls, which survived death.

Traditional religion—in Christianity and Buddhism—consisted of ethics, rituals, and beliefs. No doubt people “had religious experiences,” but that was not what religion was about.

2. Modernity: meaning is internal and insecure

In the modern world, science and rationality leached the magic and meaning out of the material world. According to science, there is no awesome guy in the sky. The mind is the activity of the brain, and ceases at death. There’s no evidence of any afterlife.

Religious beliefs were all proven false. Ritual—an external activity—became meaningless. Waving your arms about and chanting gibberish did nothing.

The sacred, the numinous, the transcendant—they died. The glory of God’s creation was reduced to commodities to be bought and sold. The cosmic order collapsed. Humanity was alienated from nature and the universe-as-a-whole.

Meaning retreated from the external world to the internal world. Meaning became subjective, psychological. That meant people gave the world meaning, rather than the world giving us meaning.

Without an external cosmic order, people had to give each other meanings. Your own meaning—your self—was no longer given by God. You had to construct it out of partial meanings given by family, school, culture and society.

The traditional world had known only one, local, unquestioned culture. The modern world brought disagreement: diverging beliefs about what was true, what things meant, and what was right or wrong.

The defining feature of modernity was the search for a way to resolve those disagreements. Some foundational truth, some solid ground, was wanted to provide certainty.

Unfortunately, none could be found. Increasingly people realized that subjective meaning was no meaning at all. The threat of nihilism loomed: maybe reality was completely meaningless, ethics were just pointless social rules, and there was no purpose in living.

Meanwhile, the self, conditioned by increasingly complicated, dissonant social and cultural forces, became complex and divided against itself. This self, this ego, could not provide any stable meaning for the world. Increasingly it became itself a problem, an obstacle.

This lead to a search for a way to overcome, to transcend, the ego. Only by escaping social conditioning could one become a true individual.

These were the “problems of modernity.” They produced a pervasive, diffuse anxiety and alienation; a sense of lack, which led to constant questing.

I’m using the past tense here because, for some, the modern world ended late in the last century. For us, the problems of modernity are no longer compelling. Others feel them as keenly as ever. This explains a lot about Buddhism in 2011. But, we mostly won’t get to that until near the end of this blog series.

3. Mysticism: restoring certainty to meaning

Mysticism offers a way out.

Mysticism finds certainty in direct experience, which cannot be contradicted. This experience is non-conceptual, non-rational, ineffable, so it cannot be challenged with rational logic.

Psychology can probe the false self. Science can say things about thoughts, beliefs, cognition, even emotions. The true self, the deep self, cannot be found by external science. It has no characteristics. It is immune to empirical criticism.

The Absolute, the Ground of Being, cannot be found by science either. It is too pervasive, too ethereal, too simple. You cannot find it with a microscope or telescope. But you can experience it. And then you know. In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.

Because the Absolute is none other than the entire universe, it animates all things. It gives all things meaning. With mystic insight, you realize that everything is sacred. The magic of the world is restored. This magic is not the gross external violations of physics that science denies. It is the shimmering numinosity that can be perceived only with the awakened eye.

Because each of us is totally connected with this cosmic source, we never need to feel alienated from the natural world, or from each other.

In discovering your true nature, you are freed from the arbitrary fetters of society and culture. You become the limitless individual that you always really were.

There’s just one problem. How do you make all that stuff happen? Perhaps some rare, special people realize their true nature spontaneously. But for most people, this seems an unattainable fantasy.

No ordinary method will do. What is needed is some kind of magic that, like an electric spark jumping a gap to complete a circuit, connects the true self to the Absolute. Some method that—like the true self and the Absolute—is perfectly simple, profoundly internal yet encompassing the universe, devoid of characteristics.

In the late 1800s, the West discovered Hindu and Buddhist meditation with huge excitement. Here, it seemed, was the missing method.

Christian salvation without talking snakes and telepathic zombies

The mystical interpretation of Buddhism makes sense because it is an abstract version of Christian salvation.

To be a Christian, you have to believe that you suffer because a talking snake convinced your ancestors to eat a magic fruit, and that the way to end suffering is to communicate telepathically with a zombie.

By 1800, it had become impossible for educated people to believe this mythology. The German Romantic Idealists invented an influential form of mysticism as a demythologized version of Protestant Christianity.

The “true self” is the soul, which yearns to find the Absolute. The Absolute is a God which is no longer a guy in the sky, but which remains all-powerful and all-knowing, and is the source of everything that is good.

For Protestant Christianity, your job is to bring your soul into the right relationship with God. If you succeed, your soul returns to God after death. Mysticism wants to accomplish that before dying. Then the true self will be found to be eternal—because it is none other than the Absolute itself.

In Christian contemplation, you search your soul for for hidden impulses to sin, and for signs of God’s grace. In Protestant Buddhism, meditation is also taught as a close examination of one’s self. You examine your experience to find the kleshas, and hope beneath them to discover the luminous true self.

Protestant Buddhism bases its understanding of powerful meditation experiences—kensho, sotapatti, whatever—on the experience of radical conversion or “rebirth” in Christianity, in which you find God within yourself.

Buddhism without mysticism

I reject the mystical interpretation of Buddhism. Not because it’s not Buddhist; you can find something like it in some traditional brands of Buddhism. I reject it because I don’t believe there is a false self, a true self, or an Absolute.

That’s because we never were divided from the world. The chasm between self and other, which mysticism tries to leap, was never there.

When meditation is thought of as an examination of the self, of inner experience, it creates the problem it is supposed to solve.

There are other ways of understanding meditation.

Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.

More about that later.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Vipassana meditation is the most Buddhist thing in “Consensus Buddhism.” This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.

It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it.

Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods.

Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. I am not a Theravadin, and don’t practice any of these methods, so I have no opinion about that.

I’m also not trying to prove that modern vipassana is “inauthentic.” Coming from Tibetan Buddhism, this rapid innovation, based on practical experiments, is slightly shocking for me. But as a scientist and engineer, it’s also inspiring. I am happy to regard all of it as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation.

Records from 1800s Thailand and Burma are somewhat sketchy, and details of the reinvention of vipassana are still an area of active historical research. However, you can verify all the facts presented in this post in the sources I cite.

Why did Theravada reinvent vipassana around 1900?

What I want to explore is the context in which modern vipassana developed. Two things stand out:

  • Asian Theravada repeatedly reinvented meditation under the influence of Western ideas.

In my last post, I described how Thai Theravada was Westernized under the kings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Similar Buddhist modernization occurred in Sri Lanka and Burma, the other two places meditation was reinvented. In the case of Thailand and Sri Lanka, there’s evidence that meditation was first reinvented because of Western influence. It’s known definitely that Asians, influenced by Western ideas, extensively revised vipassana methods during the 1900s.

Based on that, we can ask: how have Western ideas about meditation affected the new methods, and the ways they are explained?

  • Theravada meditation was reinvented by guys who were into extreme asceticism.

Knowing that, we can wonder whether it’s the best practice for people who aren’t ascetics.

How do you reinvent vipassana?

Perhaps many people were trying to figure out how to do vipassana in the late 1800s. Only four succeeded. They all started from descriptions in the Pali scriptures. The most detailed are in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and the Anapanasati Sutta.

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in.

The people who reinvented vipassana tried to actually do what the scriptures said. That wasn’t a possibility seriously considered before; no one was seriously attempting to reach nirvana. The idea that you could read scripture and try to figure out what it meant was one of the Western-influenced 1800s Protestant Buddhist innovations.

Reinventing vipassana was difficult. It took each of the reinventors many years of trial-and-error experimentation before they came up with methods they considered worked. Their biographers emphasize what a hard time they had.

The vipassana scriptures are vague, and they contradict each other. Proponents of different vipassana systems consider different suttas authoritative. They disagree strongly about which is most important, and how to interpret it.

If you read the Satipatthana Sutta, the most-used one, and if you know how to meditate, you can say “yeah, parts of that are a pretty good description of what we do.” (Other parts are nothing like what people do now. I think that’s important, as I’ll explain in a later post.) If you had no idea what meditation was, the Sutta would not seem like much of a guide.

The methods the various reinventors came up with were different from each other. Quite possibly they are all unlike the way vipassana was practiced before the method was lost—in ways that probably reflect Western influence. I return to that point in a later post, too.

Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka

Anagarika Dharmapala was born in 1864, the son of a wealthy Sri Lankan businessman. Sri Lanka was a British colony them, and he was educated at British Christian mission schools.

As a teenager, he was interested in Western occultism. In 1884, at age 20, he met Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a mystical “philosophy” that borrowed heavily from German Romantic Idealism. He was much taken with her, and vice versa; he regarded her as his principal teacher for the rest of her life. He wanted to study Western occultism with her, but she told him to learn Pali instead, because in the Pali scriptures he would find everything he was looking for.

Dharmapala, at Blavatsky’s instruction, set up the Sri Lankan branch of the Theosophical Society. Both considered that its job was to reinforce Buddhism against Christian missionary influence.

This is highly ironic. With Buddhism in Sri Lanka mostly dead, Dharmapala looked to a Westerner for answers to his spiritual issues. But Blavatsky had come to Asia because she imagined the secret to solving the spiritual crisis of Western culture was there. Blavatsky had no idea what was in the Pali scriptures, but she “intuited” that they must have the answer. Particularly, she imagined that “meditation” was the practical key. But what was “meditation”?

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of Dharmapala says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.”

Eventually, he decided to start meditating anyway. He based his practice on texts he had found, mainly the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhimagga. Presumably his ideas about meditation were influenced by Blavatsky’s, however, and by the methods of Christian prayer he had learned at school. Later, he received some brief instruction from a Burmese teacher in India.

“Dharmapala’s advocacy of meditation practice and the availability of modern translations of these three texts did much to foster Sri Lankan interest in meditation.” [Fronsdal, cited below]

However, his method is probably extinct, or insignificant. Since the late 1950s, the Mahasi method (discussed below) has been dominant in Sri Lanka. And, Sri Lankan Buddhism has not had much influence on the West.

Sources

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Gombrich & Obeyeskere, Buddhism Transformed.

Bhikkhu Sangharakshita, Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch. (This was the same Sangharakshita who founded the Triratna Buddhist Community.)

The Maha Bodhi, Volumes 98-99 (available on Google Books).

Tricycle, “Anagarika Dharmapala.”

The Thai lineage

King Mongkut was the major reformer of Thai Buddhism (as explained in my last post). His reforms were based on Western ideas. He believed that meditation was important, but was unable to find anyone who could teach him a method he found plausible.

The only meditation methods available then were “called vichaa aakhom, or incantation knowledge; [they] involved initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers.” This seems to have been a mixture of tantra (Hindu and/or Buddhist) and Thai folk animism. “They rarely mentioned nirvana except as an entity to be invoked for shamanic rites.”

Mongkut rejected this “meditation.” The Pali scriptures—to which he insisted everyone should return—say that the goal of buddhism is nirvana, attained through the practice of vipassana. Vipassana was, as far as Mongkut could find out, lost in mid-1800s Thailand.

He and his students tried to reinvent vipassana based on scriptural explanations, but he considered that they had failed.

Mongkut founded a monastic movement called Dhammayuttika, which emphasized strict adherence to vinaya (the code of conduct for monks).

It was Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, born in 1870, who developed the Thai vipassana method. Mun was a Dhammayuttika monk. I suspect it was Mongkut’s insistence on the importance of vipassana that led Mun to his discoveries, but I don’t have direct evidence of that.

His main teacher was Ajahn Sao Kantasilo. Sao taught a meditation method that consisted simply of repeating the word “Buddho.” I have not been able to discover who his teacher was, or where he got this method. I don’t know if it has any basis in Buddhist scripture; I haven’t found any. It is certainly found in Hinduism, however. It seems possible that Sao learned it from a Hindu teacher; there definitely were some in Thailand. That would be embarrassing, which could explain why no one talks about his lineage.

Ajahn Mun remained devoted to Ajahn Sao throughout his life, but Sao was unable to answer most of his questions about meditation, and Mun had doubts about the “Buddho” method. Sao, according to Mun’s foremost student, was “not a competent teacher.” Mun set off on his own, looking for someone who could actually teach him vipassana. He spent nearly two decades wandering around Thailand, Laos, and Burma, but never found anyone.

Ajahn Mun gradually developed his own vipassana method, starting in the 1890s, with the main breakthrough apparently between 1911 and 1914. He experimented with various techniques, developed what worked, and dropped what didn’t. According to his biographies, some key ideas came to him in visions (described in detail). Presumably his method was also based partly on his reading of scriptural explanations.

Ajahn Mun had two main students, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. Both had Western students, but Chah was far more influential.

Ajahn Chah actually only spent one week with Ajahn Mun. He developed his own style of practice that is more Westerner-friendly.

Ajahn Chah was the primary teacher for Jack Kornfield, among many other well-known Western vipassana teachers.

Sao, Mun, Maha Bua, and Chah all practiced an extreme form of asceticism called dhutanga, which goes beyond even strict adherence to vinaya. They considered that dhutanga and vipassana were closely linked. The point of both was to violently destroy all desires through extreme effort and austerity.

Although the Thai method is still taught, the “easier” Burmese Mahasi method (described below) is more popular in the U.S., and even in Thailand.

Sources

Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, “Ajaan Sao’s Teaching.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Customs of the Noble Ones.”

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Biography of the Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera.

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera: Meditation Master.

Brooke Schedneck, “Comparing Forest Masters’ Techniques and Implications for International Meditators.”

Brooke Schedneck, “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Luangda Maha Bua.”

The Mahasi (“New Burmese”) method

The “Mahasi method” is the most-practiced vipassana nowadays. It is considered faster and easier than the Thai method, and than the other Burmese method I describe later. Proponents of those methods consider it bogus, however.

It was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), but does have antecedents.

Mahasi’s teacher was Mingun Sayadaw (1868-1955), also known as U Narada. Many sources count Mingun as the originator of the lineage.

Mingun’s teacher was Ale-Tawya Sayadaw, whose teacher was The-lon Sayadaw. According to Strong Roots, cited below, “The-Lon Sayadaw… put this textual guidance [the Visuddhimagga] into practice without a personal teacher to guide [him] in mindfulness practice” (p. 110). This is based oral history from a traditional Burmese monk in The-lon Sayadaw’s lineage. I can’t find dates for The-lon or Ale-Tawya.

It appears that The-lon Sayadaw developed some method based on the Visuddhimagga, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mingun, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mahasi.

As background, in the late 1800s, Burma, under King Mindon, tried to follow the same path of modernization that successfully held off the British in Thailand. It failed, and the British seized it in 1885, and ran the place until 1948. So Western ideas were common in Burma throughout the period the Mahasi lineage developed.

Mahasi made several innovations. The most important was skipping samatha and the development of the jhanas (concentration states) and going directly to vipassana. He thought that samatha would take care of itself, if you practice vipassana correctly. The jhanas are not ends in themselves, so bypassing samatha is a practical shortcut.

Mahasi taught that one should aim directly for sotapatti, a first taste of nirvana. Experiencing sotapatti guarantees you cannot be reborn other than as a human or in heaven, and no more than seven more times. He said that sotapatti could reached by newcomers in a month.

Mahasi aimed his teaching particularly at lay people, rather than monks. He imported from the West the “meditation center” idea (not a traditional Asian institution). He eliminated ritual and minimized textual study.

Mahasi’s best-known Asian student was Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003). Munindra was also a student of S.N. Goenka, from the other Burmese lineage. Munindra therefore joined the two Burmese vipassana systems. Munindra was the teacher of Dipa Ma.

Many influential American teachers, including most of the main figures in what I call “Consensus Buddhism,” were students of Mahasi, Munindra, and/or Dipa Ma. They include:

  • Joseph Goldstein
  • Jack Kornfield (who first studied Ajahn Chah’s Thai method)
  • Lama Surya Das
  • Sharon Salzberg
  • Sylvia Boorstein

These Western teachers have, of course, further modified the combined vipassana systems.

Sources

Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America. Much useful history here.

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Mahasi Sayadaw, “Satipatthana Vipassana: Criticisms and Replies.”

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. Has some information on Mahasi by his best-known Western student.

Brooke Schedneck, “The Role of Samadhi in Meditation Centers and the Forest Tradition” and “Book Review: The Experience of Samadhi by Richard Shankman.” On samatha vs. vipassana, and differences between the various vipassana methods.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West,” “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Treasures of the Theravada: Recovering the Riches of Our Tradition.” Insightful articles on the ways vipassana has been adapted in the West. Gil Fronsdal is a student of Jack Kornfield, but not afraid to point out problems with the Consensus approach.

The Ledi lineage (also Burmese)

This lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923).

Little is known about how Ledi Sayadaw began to practice vipassana. The Wikipedia says that “he learned the technique of vipassana still being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills,” and this line has been copied all over the internet. As far as I can tell, it is wrong. I can’t find that information in any reliable source. It is contradicted by Strong Roots, cited above, which quotes a traditional monk from the Sagaing Hills as saying Ledi Sayadaw developed his method on his own, based only on texts. (The Sagaing Hills are a major royal temple complex, on the outskirts of Mandalay, then the capital. They are not remote or obscure, and if vipassana was commonly taught there, it seems that would be well-documented.)

Ledi Sayadaw’s biography on S.N. Goenka’s site says “although we do not have any definitive information, it seems likely that [1882-1885] was the period when he began practicing Vipassana in the traditional Burmese way: with attention to Anapana (respiration) and vedana (sensation).” S.N. Goenka is the main teacher in the Ledi linage now, and presumably if he knew of a source for Ledi Sayadaw’s method, he would say so. “The traditional Burmese way” was probably lost sometime long before 1882.

The Ledi method was extensively revised by his grand-student U Ba Khin (1899-1971) in the 1950s. U Ba Khin was a lay man, and the head accountant for the Burmese government. According to Sharf (cited below), “U Ba Khin apparently experimented with different techniques throughout his career, all of which focused primarily on bodily sensations.” The resulting differences from Ledi’s method are large enough that many sources refer to “the U Ba Khin method.” Like Mahasi, he removed most traditional aspects of Buddhism in order to teach lay people, and aimed directly for transformational experience.

S.N. Goenka teaches U Ba Khin’s method.

Lama Surya Das, one of the main founders of “Consensus Buddhism,” was a student of Goenka (among many others).

[Update, November 2013:] I’ve found a recent journal article, “On saints and wizards,” by Patrick Pranke, that traces the Burmese revival of vipassana back to the mid-1700s. This paper confirms that vipassana had been entirely lost prior to then, but provides earlier history than I had previously known about. Ledi Sayadaw learned vipassana from “U Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883) who was notable for his avid interest in western science and efforts to reconcile this new perspective with abhidhamma.” Before that the exact lineage is unclear, but it appears that from-scripture reinvention began with Medawi (1728–1816) who published his first vipassana manual in 1756.

[Another update, February 2014:] Published late last year, Erik Braun’s The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw seems to contradict Pranke’s article. I haven’t read the book, but from the part available free on Amazon, we have: “he did not get his understanding of meditation from a particular teacher, nor did he find it in a book. He developed his presentation of meditation himself…” These experts seemingly disagree in this area of current historical research.

Sources

Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw.

Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West.”

Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Later developments

The four lineages I’ve described above originated independently, and around the same time.

Later in the 1900s, several other meditation methods were invented within Asian Theravada.

One of these, due to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), has had some influence in the West. He developed his meditation method based on the Anapanasati Sutta (rejecting the Satipatthana Suttas as vague and muddled) and extensive personal experimentation.

Buddhadasa was a classic Protestant Buddhist modernizer, emphasizing rationality, universalism, scriptural authority, and meditation, eliminating ritual and supernatural beliefs. He actually dissociated himself from Buddhism altogether, preaching “No Religion”: the idea that the mystical core of all religions is the same, and found in meditation. This idea is common in Consensus Buddhism now.

Two methods seem to have had no influence on the West as yet. They are the quasi-tantric methods of the Dhammakaya movement, and the idiosyncratic teaching of Sunlun Sayadaw. These are quite different from any of the others.

Theravada, apparently, remains open to major innovations in meditation technique.

Sources

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Suchira Payulpitack, Buddhadasa’s movement : an analysis of its origins, development, and social impact.

Brooke Schedneck, “Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Modern Buddhism” and “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.”

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Do you know the Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I? Or the movie Anna and the King of Siam?

They are about Mongkut, the King of Siam. More than any other single person, he invented Western Buddhism. The films don’t exactly mention that, but they do explain quite a lot about why the Buddhism we have is the way it is.

Jack Kornfield is one of the main creators of what I call “Consensus Buddhism”—the Western Buddhist mainstream. When he got to Thailand in 1967, the Buddhism he found had already been extensively Westernized—largely thanks to King Mongkut. Thai Buddhism spoke to Kornfield, because it was designed partly to address Western problems.

Jack Kornfield is, in fact, a great-great-grand-student of King Mongkut. Kornfield’s main teacher was Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah was a student of Ajahn Mun, who invented vipassana meditation, which is the main “Buddhist” thing in Consensus Buddhism.

Mun’s preceptor was a student of Mongkut. It was Mongkut who had the radical idea that Buddhists ought to meditate—if only anyone knew how.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

A totally awesome dude

Besides inventing Western Buddhism, Mongkut was just a Totally Awesome Dude. I want to be him when I grow up.

When he was born, in 1804, his grandfather Rama I was king. Rama I founded the kingdom of Siam—now called Thailand. Rama I began to modernize the country, opening it to Western influence. He allowed in traders and Christian missionaries. He had parts of the Pali scriptures—the holy texts of Theravada Buddhism—translated into the Thai language. That was a first, and an important innovation, because only tiny fraction of the monks could read Pali. Most had no idea what their own holy books said.

Mongkut ordained as a monk in 1824, and remained a monk for 27 years. The first thing he did was to go to a monastery that supposedly specialized in teaching meditation. After less than a year, he realized that this “mediation” was bogus, and left. (I’ll write more about that in another post.) Then he spent several years studying the scriptures.

In the light of scripture, he found bogosity everywhere. All the Siamese monks were ignoring the vinaya. Vinaya is the part of scripture that lays out the rules for what monks are supposed to do. There’s 227 of them. Supposedly they come straight from the Buddha.

In traditional Buddhism, everywhere in Asia, most of the vinaya was ignored. It still is. It’s very holy and stuff, in theory; but monks actually follow other, unwritten rules, set by local institutional tradition. Currently, in Thailand, most monks pay attention to only 19 of the 227 vinaya rules, and take only eight really seriously.

Maybe there are good reasons for that. These might be sensible changes, due to circumstances being different than in the Buddha’s time. Or it might be a corruption, due to laziness. I don’t have an opinion—my own Buddhist lineage is totally non-monastic, so I don’t care what monks do.

Mongkut sure had an opinion. His opinion was that if Buddha said monks can’t eat after noon, that means monks can’t eat after noon. He formed a new order of monks who followed every goddamn one of the rules, to the letter.

He had another opinion. Siamese Buddhism was full of magic, gods and demons. That was bogus. That stuff was Hinduism, or superstition, not Buddhism. Anything not in the Pali scriptures wasn’t Buddhism. As a powerful monk, and later as king, he did everything he could to get rid of it.

Taking scripture, not oral tradition, as religious authority was a new idea in Buddhism. Historians think it’s due to the influence of Protestant Christian missionaries.

Mongkut spent much of his time with missionaries and traders. He got to be fluent in English, and learned Western science and Christian theology. He liked the rationality of Christian ethics, but thought its supernatural doctrines were absurd. He was close friends with a Catholic vicar, to whom he said “What you teach people to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish.”

Buddhism should be rational and scientific, he thought. Everyone in Siam thought the earth was flat. That was bogus. Western science convinced Mongkut that it was round. His opinion was, the Siamese needed to know that. He worked hard, through the rest of his life, to convince them.

Buddhist texts are very clear on the flatness of the earth. Here Mongkut established a fundamental principle of modern Buddhism: scripture trumps tradition, but science trumps scripture.

Mongkut had another opinion. Scripture said you had to practice vipassana to reach nirvana. Unfortunately, no one at that time knew how. He thought that was bogus. He seems to have encouraged his students to find out.

It’s good to be king

Mongkut became king, and disrobed, in 1851. He was not a dilly-dallier. He acquired hundreds of concubines, as quickly as possible. Being a monk is the way to nirvana, but if you are stuck being king instead, the job has its consolations.

Mongkut was brought to power by the pro-Western, modernist faction of the Siamese elite. He was not a dilly-dallier. He set out to modernize the country as fast as he could.

Siam was caught between two colonial powers: the British dominated Burma, Siam’s western neighbor; the French dominated Laos and Cambodia, to Siam’s north and east. Both wanted Siam, and would take it if they could.

Mongkut played the two off against each other; but he recognized that, in the worst case, Siam would be better off under British rule. The British, unlike the French, had gotten a bit squeamish about colonialism. To justify it, they had to pretend it was moral; a way of uplifting the lives of primitive natives who lacked the benefits of the modern world: the scientific worldview, industrial technology, a bureaucratic government, and a proper religion.

So Mongkut’s strategy was to allow British influence in Siam, but to try to show them that it was a modern country—and therefore could not be colonized. (This is a main theme in The King and I and Anna and the King of Siam.)

He imported British teachers to educate Siamese in Western ideas. He signed a free trade treaty with Britain, resulting in dramatic increases in commerce. He built modern infrastructure and began to industrialize. (For this he is apparently known as “The Father of Science and Technology” in Thailand.) He started to transform a feudal kingdom into a European-style nation-state. He increased state control over the Sangha, and promoted the reforms of Buddhism that would make it look like an acceptable “world religion” to the British.

Dying for Science

Theoretically, Mongkut was an absolute monarch, but in reality his power was limited by the traditionalist factions of the aristocracy and institutional Sangha.

In 1868, Mongkut used Western astronomy to calculate the exact time and place of a solar eclipse. He travelled there, with court officials, to demonstrate that “Science Works, Bitches”—and the “Buddhist” methods used by the powerful court astrologers don’t.

His calculations proved right; the astrologers were wrong. But, unfortunately, he got malaria on the trip, and died.

His oldest son Chulalongkorn was king next. Chulalongkorn reigned until 1910, and completed most of Mongkut’s modernization program. (The movies are about the relationship between Mongkut and Anna Leonowens, the English school teacher he hired to tutor his children. In the films, Leonownes’ liberal political teachings significantly influence Chulalongkorn’s ideas about right government. Historians are unsure whether that’s true.)

Mongkut’s strategy worked. Siam was one of the very few Asian countries to escape colonization.

Mongkut’s legacy: “Western Buddhism”

Mongkut’s reform of Buddhism is a classic case of the pattern of modernizations I’ve explained in my previous few posts:

Current “Consensus Buddhism” is based more on Thai Theravada than any other Buddhist source. That means that Mongkut’s transformation of traditional Siamese folk beliefs into a modern world religion is the most important example of the themes I’ve been writing about.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

It would be an exaggeration to say that “Zen” was invented as a defense against American gunboats. It would not be completely wrong, however.

This is a post in my Crumbling Buddhist Consensus series. Modernized Zen is one of the two main Buddhist sources for Consensus Western Buddhism. This post explains how and why Japan radically altered Zen to make it compatible with Western ideas.

Opening the Japanese oyster

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry took four state-of-the-art American warships into Tokyo harbor. They were powered by steam engines and armed with a devastating new weapon. Their Paixhans guns fired explosive shells: not solid metal cannon balls, but bombs that detonated on hitting their target. Perry gave a “shock and awe” demonstration, destroying several buildings on the harbor front.

Against this barbaric assault, Japan had no defense whatsoever.

For two centuries, it had maintained a policy of cultural isolation. Christian missionaries had arrived in the 1600s, and successfully converted many Japanese. When the Empress learned how Europe took the Americas, she correctly concluded that the missionaries were the first step in a strategy of colonization.

Japan banned Christianity. All Japanese were required to belong to, and financially support, a Buddhist temple, to prove they weren’t Christians.

To eliminate dangerous foreign ideas, nearly all contact with the outside world was prevented by force. This isolation successfully kept out Christianity. Unfortunately, it also kept out Western technology. In 1853, Japan had almost no guns, and those few were hopelessly obsolete. Perry could have leveled Tokyo, and there would have been nothing Japan could have done about it.

His four black ships defeated a glorious empire. Japan was forced to sign a series of humiliating treaties, on terms dictated by America. These ended Japan’s policy of isolation; Perry had “opened the Japanese oyster,” as American headlines put it. (Yum!) The unequal treaties gave Americans free trade access, the right to live in Japan, and the right for missionaries to teach Christianity. Other Western powers imposed similar treaties over the next few years.

These treaties were seen by both the West and Japan as first steps toward colonial domination.

Japan chooses modernism

The situation was critical; dire; intolerable. But what to do?

Step 1, obviously, was to get some Western-style warships. Just a year after Perry’s arrival, Japan had built its first: an astonishing feat, given a start from late-Medieval-level technology. Over the next few decades, Japan continually built and bought ever-more-powerful gunboats.

Unfortunately, it was always behind. Among the Western powers, warships were the main technology arms race during the second half of the 1800s. Japan fought a series of naval battles against Western powers in the 1850s and 1860s, and it was crushed every time.

The problem was that warships weren’t just an accidental discovery. They depended on Western technology, which depended on Western science, which depended on Western philosophy.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Japan’s elite was profoundly split over strategy:

  • Modernists argued that the only way to compete with the West was to adopt Western ideologies. Japan must transform itself into a Western power.
  • Conservatives argued that Japan’s cultural heritage, its values, were what made it great. To adopt Western ideologies would be to do the foreign devils’ work for them; to destroy everything that made Japan Japan.

In the late 1860s, this split broke into civil war. The modernists won, and took control of the country.

Japan modernized astonishingly quickly. Feudalism was replaced with a modern bureaucratic state. The traditional economy was replaced with capitalism. Late-Medieval technology was replaced with modern industry. The military, closely entwined with the government, was built up rapidly, and soon won wars against China, Russia, and Korea.

Japan adopted the European ideology of the nation-state, which required a single culture throughout its territory. Among other things, that meant the selection of a state religion. Up to this point, Japan had a confused mixture of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism, without a “true national religion in the manner of Western nations”. This was declared “a weakness in the Japanese national identity, placing it at a disadvantage to the Western powers.”

Abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni!

The modernists’ concession to traditionalism was the slogan “Japanese ethics, Western technology.” Japan’s essential national character, its inviolable fundamental values, would remain intact. Especially, Japan would not adopt Christianity.

The new state adopted Shinto as its official religion. Shinto would be the sacred carrier of Japaneseness. Buddhism, instead, was pretty much banned.

Up til then, the Buddhist institutional Sangha had immense social and economic power, due to the old requirement that all Japanese belong to and support a temple. These religious taxes were heavy, and widely resented. The Sangha had backed the losing, traditionalist side during the ’50s and ’60s. Eliminating Buddhism was popular with many ordinary people, and wiped out a hostile power base.

The anti-Buddhist movement was called haibutsu kishaku, which means “abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni.” Buddhism was declared to be “a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan’s need for scientific and technological advancement.” It was denounced as not really Japanese, but a foreign import. It was from China, a seemingly great empire that proved pathetically weak as the colonial powers carved it up in the 1840s and ’50s.

Most Buddhist temples were closed. Many were destroyed. Buddhist monks were forced to return to lay life or forcibly converted to Shinto. Countless Buddhist books and treasures were confiscated or burned.

The New Buddhism

Buddhism was saved, sort of, by a small group of Buddhists who had sided with the modernists during the 1850s and ’60s. They were intellectuals, educated at newly created Western-style universities, who saw value in both Buddhism and Western ideas.

They agreed that the Buddhist establishment had to be destroyed. Institutional Buddhism had “degenerated” into meaningless rituals and folk superstitions. But this was the fault of a corrupt Sangha, not Buddhism itself. Haibutsu kishaku was a purifying flame that would actually strengthen Buddhism in the long run.

They proposed that a “New Buddhism” (shin bukkyo) could be a powerful tool for the government in its drive to modernize and strengthen Japan. Their sales pitch succeeded; persecution of Buddhism ended. Imakita Kosen, one of the leaders of the New Buddhism movement, was made a Doctrinal Instructor at the Ministry of Doctrine, with power to reform the religion:

  • New Buddhism was supposedly scientific, empirical, and rational. It showed that Buddhism “actually anticipated modern scientific discoveries in areas as diverse as physics, astronomy, and psychology.” It taught the importance of the technological worldview to everyone.
  • Old Buddhism was infested with gods, spirits, monsters, and demons. New Buddhism rejected the supernatural.
  • New Buddhism also rejected the literal understanding of karma and rebirth. Those were superstitions.
  • The main job of Buddhist priests had been to perform rituals (especially funerals). New Buddhism devalued that.
  • The Sangha had been parasitic and self-interested. New Buddhism was socially responsible and socially engaged.
  • The Sangha had spent much of its energy on petty internal squabbles between Buddhist sects. New Buddhism was non-sectarian. It was a single, uniform religion for all people.
  • The Sangha had been remote from the people, concerned with pointless esoterica and imaginary after-death worlds. New Buddhism served ordinary people.
  • New Buddhism blurred the strict division between monks and lay people. It gave ordinary people access to practices—especially meditation—that had been reserved for the clergy.
  • New Buddhism was not a foreign import. Purged of alien influences, it was the highest expression of the Japanese national character.
  • As the holder of the sacred Japanese values—supposedly eternal but largely newly invented by the government—it was a way to impose state ideology on the masses.
  • New Buddhism was fiercely loyal to the state.
  • The limp girly-man pacifism of the old Buddhism was rejected. New Buddhism taught the sacred duty of Japan to go to war in order to bring correct ethics to the world.
  • Just as the Western powers exported Christianity to influence (and eventually subjugate) inferior peoples, Japan could export New Buddhism.
  • New Buddhism was, in fact, a universal “world religion.”
  • New Buddhism proposed, further, that Zen was the true, essential core of all religions—especially Christianity. Christianity was merely a confused approximation to Zen. If this idea could be made to stick, Japan could co-opt Christianity and turn Europeans’ missionary strategy against them.

If you’ve read my earlier post about Protestant reforms to Buddhism, you’ll recognize many of the items on this list. All across Asia, the re-making of Buddhism in the late 1800s included both Protestant and nationalist factors. Japan took the nationalism more seriously than most.

The New Buddhist reform had limited effect in Japan. There’s still a lot of pretty traditional Buddhism there now. However, the strategy of exporting New Buddhism to the West was successful. The Zen we have now is heavily influenced by it. That Zen was one of the main inputs to “Consensus Buddhism.”

(Of course, export Buddhism was not only motivated by cynical nationalism. No doubt all those involved also genuinely believed that they were bringing a better religion to Westerners, for our benefit.)

Exporting New Buddhism

Imakita Kosen’s dharma heir, and successor at the Ministry of Doctrine, was Soyen Shaku. In 1892, he wrote:

Religion is the only force in which the Western people know that they are inferior to the nations of the East… Let us wed the Great Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism] to Western thought… At Chicago next year, the fitting time will come.

The World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, in 1893. Here Japanese Buddhism was presented to white America for the first time. Soyen Shaku’s lecture to the Parliament, presenting New Buddhism, was a big success. He followed up with the first English-language book on Zen, and a world teaching tour in 1905-6, spending time in America and several European countries.

(Anagarika Dharmapala, the great modernizer of Sri Lankan Buddhism who I discussed in a previous post, was even more of a star at the Parliament. He seems to have been particularly popular among the ladies—rather a waste if he kept his vow of celibacy.)

Soyen Shaku had responsibilities in Japan; he could not be a full-time missionary. In 1897, he sent his young student D.T. Suzuki to America—one of the most important events in Western Buddhism.

D.T. Suzuki invents “Zen”

Suzuki wound up defining “Zen” for the West for the next sixty years.

His qualifications to speak about Zen were dubious. He had a much stronger background in Western philosophy and theology, which he studied at university in Japan and in America. While at university, he did study Zen with both Imakita Kosen and Soyen Shaku, but his training was squeezed into weekends and vacations. He was a layman—never ordained—was never given formal permission to teach, and was definitely not a “Zen master.” Later in life, at least, Zen was not his own path; he practiced mainly Shin Buddhism, a very different sect.

Zen, however, was the Japanese Buddhism easiest to reinterpret as compatible with early 20th-century American values. And that is what Suzuki did, in dozens of English-language books, and when teaching in the U.S. (He was a professor at Columbia University in New York from 1952-57.) His starting point was Imakita Kosen’s New Buddhism, but to this he added a new theory of Zen meditation and enlightenment.

This theory was developed by Suzuki together with the Kyoto School. That was a group of Japanese philosophy professors, founded by a close friend of Suzuki’s, devoted to synthesizing Buddhist and Western philosophy. Their work was world-class—brilliant. Unfortunately, the main Western philosophy they chose to integrate with Buddhism was German Romantic Idealism. That philosophy is long-since discredited in the Western world. It is also, in my personal opinion, mostly wrong and harmful.

Suzuki presented this mash-up as the original, true, pure Zen; but also as not particularly Buddhist. Zen was, instead, the mystical essence of all religions; just as much a part of Christianity as of Buddhism.

From his study of Western culture, Suzuki understood its biggest problem: the uncertainty, anxiety, alienation, and loss of meaning that came with the scientific-rational-relative worldview. He presented Zen as the solution; and that was believable enough to make it popular.

Since his death, American Zen teachers have gradually unpicked Suzuki’s politically-motivated distortions. However, the Suzuki/Kyoto (mis)interpretation of meditation is still widespread. I think this is important to understanding current Consensus Buddhism. It is a large and subtle subject, so I’ll write a full, separate page about it soon.

The New New Zen: Sanbo Kyodan

A large fraction of American Zen teachers are in the HaradaYasutani lineage, called Sanbo Kyodan, which was most active in the mid-20th century. I haven’t been able to get a clear picture of its historical relationship with the late-1800s New Buddhism, but its ideas are closely similar:

  • Sanbo Kyodan specializes in teaching lay people, especially non-Japanese, and ordained Christians.
  • Meditation is the main or sole practice.
  • Sanbo Kyodan rejects most ritual, and does not require extensive study of doctrine or scripture.
  • It presents enlightenment as “realizing one’s true self, which is infinite and absolute” (the key idea in German Romantic Idealism). This a present-life experience, a transformation that eradicates ego.
  • It says that Zen is “not a religion,” but the experiential truth behind all great faiths.
  • Some Sanbo Kyodan teachers explain Buddhist ideas such as impermanence, anatman, and emptiness in terms of scientific concepts, like quantum mechanics.
  • Not all Sanbo Kyodan teachers consider themselves Buddhists; some are ordained Christian priests.

Further reading

Some things in this post might seem improbable. They appear all to be uncontested facts, however. You can check them easily in (e.g.) the Wikipedia. Its section on the Japanese New Buddhism is a good starting point.

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has a long section on Suzuki’s reinterpretation of Zen in terms of Western Romantic Idealism.

Robert H. Sharf has several academic journal articles that discuss the re-making of modern Zen in detail. These include “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism” and “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience“, and “Sanbōkyōdan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions.” Sharf has some axes to grind, and sometimes he seems to me to edge on overstating his case, but the facts seem solid.