One Dharma. Whose?

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism is a manifesto of Consensus Buddhism.

It is also an introduction to Buddhism, and a practice manual; but I am interested only in the manifesto aspect. This is not a review; I am not concerned with evaluating the book as something that might be useful to someone now. Rather, I treat it as a historical document. Its significance is as a chess-move in the political program of a movement that is now—I hope—over. (And, as it was published ten years ago, Goldstein’s own view has probably evolved since.)

Introducing the cast

One Dharma is an oddly incoherent book. It is written in three different voices, with quite different agendas.

Most of the book is a practical introduction to Consensus Buddhism (which Goldstein calls “One Dharma”), written for beginners. Its author is a warm, wise, mature mentor. I’ll call him “Goldstein.” Goldstein’s excellence as a meditation teacher shows clearly, and I like and respect him, although the Buddhism he teaches does not appeal to me.

The book’s Introduction is a manifesto, proclaiming a political dogma. Its audience seems to be American teachers of Buddhism. I’ll call the booming, triumphant voice of its author “Goldstein.” I don’t care for him much.

The third voice, “joseph,” is prone to confusion, anxiety, and doubt. He is honest about not being able to make sense of Buddhism—unlike Goldstein—and that is to his credit. His audience is probably just the author himself; it’s not clear what use joseph could be to anyone else.

This combination makes the book pretty incoherent. I would like to write about just Goldstein’s manifesto. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely separate it from the other two threads.

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Buddhist Geeks podcast II, and coming attractions

The second half of my Buddhist Geeks interview is now up on the web.

This covers the recent history of the Consensus, and the future. Among other things, I talk about the possibility for new forms of Buddhist Tantra.

I’m really happy with the way the podcast came out. I sound more articulate than I actually am! Vince must have applied some advanced digital magic.

If you take a look at my Twitter stream (in the right column of this blog, or here), you’ll see that recently I’ve been tweeting mainly about Buddhist Tantra. I’m hoping to write here soon a long series of posts about the possibilities for reinventing Buddhist Tantra. The tweets are a preview—summaries of upcoming posts, in slogan form.

First, though, a couple of posts analyzing Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. That’s a manifesto for Consensus Buddhism, by one of its leaders.

I hoped to post that analysis before the Geeks podcast went up, but haven’t yet had time to finish it. One Dharma is important because, after going on about the Consensus for months, this will be the first time I engage with it directly and concretely, rather than talking about it in the abstract.

After that, I’m planning to write about the future of Tantra. This actually will break the flow of my analysis of the Consensus. Logically, it would be better to continue my historical approach. I would write about the hippies’ encounter with Asian modernist Buddhism in the 1960s and 70s; the innovative creation of Western Buddhism in the 80s; the formation of the political Consensus in 1993 at the Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference (with an analysis of the Statement it released, mentioned in this podcast); the suppression of alternative Western Buddhisms in the 1990s and 2000s; signs that the Consensus is now opening up (or breaking down); and only then the possibilities for the future!

But maybe all that stuff is awfully dry; and anyway it’s over. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford said. I did a poll on Twitter, and 100% of respondents said they’d rather hear about the future than the past. So—that is what I will write next!

Preventing holy wars, by consensus

Religious conflicts tend to be particularly nasty: whether holy wars that kill millions or flame wars on Buddhist internet forums.

When you have The One Whole Holy Truth, anyone with a different view must be absolutely wrong and wicked, and should be punished severely.

So, this is not news… The question is what to do about it.

One popular approach is to insist that all religions are essentially the same. To parody slightly:

“Religious differences are merely variations in cultural customs. Such differences are arbitrary and irrelevant; no one goes to war based on which side of the road you drive on. What really matters in all religions—their core values—are shared equally among all of them. When we recognize this, we can all join hands as one big happy family and sit in a circle singing Om Kumbaya.”

This is very nice. In fact, it is the essence of “niceness”: pretending that conflict does not exist, in order to pursue a hidden agenda.

Consensus Buddhism” is founded on this principle. According to the Consensus, all Buddhisms are essentially the same. Their seeming conflicts are merely differences in Asian cultural customs, which are irrelevant to the West.

“Therefore, there is no need for disagreement among Buddhists. This idea that we can, and should, and maybe have, achieved consensus about what all Buddhisms teach, is one of the reasons I describe the current Western mainstream as “Consensus Buddhism.”

Also, by consensus, we can mix Buddhism with other religions, because it is not essentially different from Christianity or Hinduism.

There are three problems here:

  1. It isn’t true. Different religions are not essentially the same. Different Buddhisms have incompatible principles, values, paths, and goals.
  2. It doesn’t work. Ignoring differences actually makes religious conflicts worse.
  3. It justifies totalitarianism. Whoever gets to say what is the “essential, shared core” of religions can define competitors out of existence—if that decree is accepted.

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How not to argue about Buddhism

The most common unproductive way to disagree is to attack your opponent, rather than what they have to say. (This is called “arguing ad hominem”—Latin for “against the person.”)

Ad hominem rarely adds to understanding—but it can be effective at silencing opposition.

Here are some specifically Buddhist forms of ad hominem I’ve encountered:

“You are being aggressive.” In other words, you won’t shut up when I tell you that you are wrong. “Aggression” is the worst Buddhist sin, so if I can make that stick, nice Buddhists will ignore whatever you have to say. (This also trades on the wrong idea that it is inherently hostile to insist that different Buddhisms are different.)

“Obviously, you don’t practice meditation much.” If you did, you would agree with me. Because meditation leads to the Truth, and I have the Truth.

“This is a bunch of academic/intellectual posturing.” I find what you are saying hard to understand. I don’t actually know much about Buddhism, but I’m totally sure I’m right. Rather than learning more—perhaps even from you—I will try to make you look irrelevant and out-of-touch.

“You have no right to say that.” As you know, we live in a totalitarian state in which The Buddhist Authorities determine who is allowed to say what.

“That’s not compatible with our Western values.” Naturally, all good Westerners have the same values, namely mine.

“That’s just a traditional view.” (The usual way for modernists to dismiss traditionalists.) As of last week, we’ve got everything figured out, so anything that contradicts our current belief is obsolete and should be forgotten.

“Your Buddhism is inauthentic.” (The usual way for traditionalists to dismiss modernists. What does “authentic” mean? In practice, nothing more than “my system, not yours.”)

“Yours is even worse.” You don’t believe that my meditation can make me One with The Entire Universe? Well, I don’t believe in your Tibetans’ flying lamas, either.

What other unhelpful Buddhist argument styles have you encountered?

My Buddhist Geeks interview with Hokai Sobol

I’m excited and honored to have a podcast interview up now on the Buddhist Geeks web site.

The Buddhist Geeks are doing fascinating, important work in expanding the range of Buddhist voices, and particularly in encouraging discussion of the future of Buddhism.

The podcast is about “Consensus Buddhism,” which I’ve been writing about here for the past few months.

The interview is in two parts; the next is coming in a week. Together, they cover much of the whole story I intend to present here, although of course only in summary. So, it touches on many points I expect to expand into full web pages over coming months.

I was particularly pleased that the discussion was with Hokai Sobol. Hokai is a teacher of Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana). He thinks deeply about how Vajrayana can function in contemporary society—which is also one of my main preoccupations. From the brief conversations I’ve had with him, it seems that we have reached some of the same conclusions. I’m greatly looking forward to his further work.

Constructive religious disagreement

“You should not argue about religion”—much less criticize anyone else’s. That’s taboo. Everyone knows it’s not nice.

Genuine religious tolerance, however, begins with understanding. Understanding other people’s religions means understanding how they are different.

Respectful argument, including criticism, is the best way we have to get clear about religious differences.

Of course, religious arguments can erupt into hellish holy wars, and that’s why we have the taboo. But “let’s all get along” does not always have to mean “let’s not talk about it.”

A constructive religious argument won’t convert opponents, and won’t result in agreement, and doesn’t try. Instead, it allows both sides to understand their own systems better.

Even better, constructive debate allows on-lookers to better understand their own religious values and needs and capabilities. That is critical to finding a religion that is a good personal fit—one whose goals you want to pursue, whose path you enjoy, and whose prerequisites are in reach.

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