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!

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

21 thoughts on “Buddhist Geeks podcast II, and coming attractions”

  1. Did that comment just disappear? Wanted to say I appreciate your work and enjoy it and hope such appreciation is a reward for all the hard work and time you invest in your writings. Looking forward to the projects above. Thanks.

  2. 100% would rather read about the future than the past? I find that figure fascinating.
    On the night that Mr. Steenwijk was murdered in January of 1945 he told his surving son Anton, the more you know about the past the better that you will understand the present. I find this a very very important piece of advice. It should be obvious. It is true for individuals and for cities, nations and the planet. But, until I had heard the story of Anton Steenwijk I looked to historical stories only for insperation and entertainment.

    The thing is the past can be so fictionalized we really do not know for sure whether the stories that we hear are real or incorrect. What we see we see through a piece of glass that warps all of the light that comes through the glass. No surprise then why people do not think that past has any relevance to the present. There is no historical narrative that they can trust as being accurate.

    The study of history ends up being like the study of a jigsaw puzzle in which there is no picture to look at to see how the jigsaw puzzel should look when it is finished. We can just fit the peices that we find together and see if the picture that they make makes sense. Sometimes we think find a critical peice that allows us to fit many other pieces together and this lasts until we find another critical piece which causes us to change the whole picture again.

    Compare this with talking about the future. Is it possible to talk about the future without projecting the trends of the past past the present? :) If our history is bunk what will our future decisions be?

  3. Hallo David
    You say you would write about “the formation of the political Consensus in 1993 at the Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference (with an analysis of the Statement it released …) I hope you will do so.
    Perhaps it will interest you (and others) that the man who wrote that analysis in 1993 – Stephen Batchelor – is not so positive about it and about the role of the Dalai Lama anymore.
    Cf his book ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ from 2010. In page 202-205 Batchelor states that it was the Dalai Lama who suggested to compose an ‘open letter’, now called a ‘statement’ and did a lot of suggestions about the content.
    About the end of the process I quote Batchelor (204, 205)

    “It took weeks form the Dalai Lama’s private office to ratify the document. And when it was finally returned to us for publication, it was unchanged except for one thing: the sentence in which the Dalai Lama personally endorsed the text had been deleted. Without his endorsement, the open letter gave the impression thatb twenty-two self-selected Western teachers had taken it upon themselves to issue a decree to the entire Buddhist community. From the moment the Dalai Lama first suggested writing an open letter, I had assumed that I was drafting a joint statement that would be released by the Dalai Lama and our group. I fully agreed with the content of the letter we published, but the whole experience left me with the slightly unpleasant taste of having been used. The Dalai Lama has succeeded in communicating his concerns and proposing a solution, but by removing his endorsement from the letter, his staff ensured that he did not have to take any responsibility for what it said. Once again, I became aware of how what appeared on the surface to be a shared cause between Tibetans and Westerners could also conceal conflicting agendas and expectations.”

    So a question is (one of the questions) what was or is the role of the Dalai Lama in ‘the formation of the political consensus in 1993’, to quote you.
    My impression is that the Dalai Lama prefers two buddhisms:
    – the real thing for Tibetans and
    – a concensus one (Beyond Religion as is the title of his newest book) for Westerners.

  4. @ Matthew – WordPress decided your first comment was spam. Sorry about that; I’ve rescued it. Yes, the only reward I want from writing is for it to be enjoyable and useful for some!

    @ Curt, Jayarava – Excellent, good to see some dissenting votes. I find learning Buddhist history to be extremely valuable for understanding the Buddhist present, and to help envision the Buddhist future. The ways in which Buddhism has varied in the past is our best guide to what can and cannot vary in the future, I think.

  5. @ Joop – Thank you very much for that information!

    I knew that this was what happened, but I didn’t know that anyone was willing to say it publicly. I planned to say it happened, but without this evidence, I would have sounded paranoid and irresponsible. But Stephen Batchelor’s new account shows the fingerprints on the smoking gun.

    My take is that the Dalai Lama was brilliantly executing the “New World Religion” strategy invented a hundred years earlier, in which Asian Buddhist leaders co-created, with Westerners, artificial new Buddhisms engineered specifically to appeal to Western (Christian) prejudices.

    Each of these new Buddhisms—the Consensus, in this case—had a triple purpose:

    1. By looking good to the non-Buddhist Western mainstream, it mobilized Western political support for an Asian nationalist cause. (In this case, freeing Tibet from Chinese colonialism; in Thailand, avoiding Western colonialism, and in Japan’s case additionally its military domination of East Asia.)
    2. It implanted memetic viruses in the brains of the Westerners who actually practiced it: values that were politically useful to the new religion’s inventors. Docility, notably.
    3. It selectively strengthened and weakened the power of different factions within the creators’ Asian sangha. In this case, the Dalai Lama consolidated the power of the Tibetan center-right against both the extreme right and the left.

    In the Tibetan case, accomplishing each of these goals required withdrawing and hiding Vajrayana from the West.

    1. Vajrayana is not nice and, if accurately explained, would be repellent to the Western (Christian) mainstream, including relatively liberal Americans.
    2. Vajrayana is, in part, a means for acquiring and wielding power. Giving Westerners that power would not be helpful at all.
    3. For centuries, the Tibetan right has tried to keep strict control over Vajrayana; the left has tried to make it broadly available. This struggle is a constant through the past thousand years of Tibetan history, with one side or the other making gains in different periods.

    So, yes, I agree with your analysis. The Dalai Lama co-created Consensus Buddhism for Westerners, mainly reserving “the real thing” for Tibetans. But even there, as the head of the center-right, he favored reserving Vajrayana for a small, monastic elite—with a different, docility-promoting religion given to the Tibetan masses, to keep them in line.

  6. Looking forward to your discussion of tantra modernization. Tantra is still opaque to me except for the demon worship/visualization part and the required surrender to an individual teacher as the link. To get that adjusted and westernized seems to be a challenge. I hope you include a synopsis of Vajrayana for those like me who have only a superficial understanding.

  7. It is no less important to ‘speak truth to power’ in spirituality than it is in politics. Square that for spiritual politics. You GO!

  8. Another vote in appreciation of (and for more of) your historical posts. Your take on the way that Buddhism has developed in to what it is today is one of the main reasons that I read (and greatly enjoy) this blog. I have, in fact, now read several of the books that you’ve cited in those posts – most recently, Inventing the World’s Religions and How the Swans Came to the Lake. (And, on that note, thank you for making me aware of them). While I am interested in all forms of Buddhist thought and practice, and have a somewhat unorthodox (Zen-based) practice of my own, I am also a student of Religious Studies and am particularly interested in the development of religions. I find that with the historical context explored one is able to find a richer and more complete picture of how and why it is what it is today.

  9. Another vote for more history! Maybe twitter-folk are more neophilic and futural than blog-folk? :-)

  10. Hallo David (and other commenters)
    Glad to have been of some help
    Perhaps you can postpone (writing about) the future a bit, but I think not forever
    The problem for me and more commenters/readers of this blog will be:
    The future of the buddhism of David will not be my (our?) future
    I’m interested to read about tantra but I’m rather sure that will not be my practice
    So: I had to do that myself and we had to do that ourselves,
    the old consensus can not be exchanged by a new one, the Chapman-one.
    An aspect of consensus-buddhism is was/is that it had its own heroes and I think a BUDDHISM WITHOUT HEROES should be preferred
    Long time I thought my solution was: back to the Asian roots (of Theravada), to “early buddhism’ of the Sutta’s; I still think so but that can only be part of the solution, one leg in the past is okay but the other should be in the present

  11. I think that David would completely agree to not wanting to exchange ‘the old consensus’ for one of his devising; I can’t imagine his having any interest in such a project.

    Myself, I wouldn’t be interested in a Buddhism Without Heroes; but finding WORTHY heroes calls for discipline and wisdom. And great skepticism. To hijack a phrase, ‘the Dharma Hero will not be televised’ for millions to adore and follow; Apple will not be sponsoring an appearance on anyone’s show.

    Just my take.

  12. I was doing some unpacking tonight and I came across a cohort of books by Idries Sha an Afghan who claimed to be a highly advanced Sufi. He was widely derided as a fraud. None the less I found his books quite interesting. Why, because they sounded to me so much like consensus
    Buddhism. He himself remarked on the similarities of his explination of sufiism and some forms of Buddhism (Zen as I recall) and claimed that they were influenced by Sufiism. HIS esplination is that Sufiism is much older than Islam. He further claims that Mohhammad was a Sufi even before he founded Islam. So his claim is that there has been interaction between Buddhist and Sufi spiritualists from a very early time over a long period of time.
    I think that Idries Sha was attempting to do exactly what other Buddhists that you have brought up were trying to do before him, redefine Sufiism to be able to redefine Islam to make Islam compatible with the European Enlightment. His goal was even more ambitious because I guess that he was aiming at two audiances, both Muslims and westerner followers of both liberal Christian and Secular thought.
    Do not expect me to provide any citqations or an footnotes for my opions though I am not a PHD or a college professor.

  13. What I hear David saying is the old American saying “Let freedom ring!” in Buddhism. For a good display of fireworks something to discuss would be if Western Buddhism needs to be freed from the presumption that Buddhism and leftist liberal views are intrinsically joined at the hip. I think for some, Buddhism provides spiritual justification for liberal beliefs and it would be uncomfortable for them to have that assumption challenged.

  14. Sorry to be slow to reply; I have a tummy bug.

    In writing about the future, I won’t say “the right thing is X”. In the podcast, and elsewhere, I’ve said that the problem with the Consensus is not that it is wrong, but that it crowded out all non-traditional alternatives. I hope and expect to see much greater diversity of Buddhisms as the Consensus loses control.

    I won’t even say “X is one good way forward”. I don’t have an X—an alternative Buddhism—to promote. I am not a teacher, much less a terton; I won’t create any new system.

    What I hope to do is to point out some aspects of traditional Buddhisms, which the Consensus overlooked or suppressed, and how they might be usefully re-used in future Buddhisms. For example, the Consensus mostly eschews ritual, which is a central part of every Asian Buddhism, certainly including Theravada. I will write about how ritual works, and why it is valuable, and will speculate in a general way about how future Buddhisms might incorporate it. I can’t and won’t suggest any specific rituals.

    Joop, I would like to see a Buddhism in which anyone can be a hero. In theory, Vajrayana is that. Tibetan practice hasn’t upheld that theory, but I think we can.

    Curt, I’ve read one book by Idries Shah, and I think you are right that he sought to redefine Sufism to make Islam compatible with the European Enlightenment. I found that quite interesting.

    Gottheo, I agree with that. I think “Buddhist ethics” as understood in the West is a recently-created fraud… My outline for this series included several pages about that, but I decided not to include them, as it would probably generate a lot of useless acrimony.

  15. Great interview!
    For me, besides understanding the difference between the different Buddhisms and the contrasting views with other “isms”, and the promises of “transformation”, it is still important to answer the question of “How do we measure transformation”?
    One’s position on this question determines how one chooses their method — psychoanalysis, new age methods, tantra, mindfulness-meditation, yoga, bhakti (Christian, Buddhist or Hindu) ….

    Can I reject any of them based on philosophical arguments? Can we find a more common empirical language to sort out the knots of language? For as it stands now, most of us are using methods that we fall into (and defend) based simply on our own personal historical accidents. It would be so nice to have more than anecdotes, stories from saints and testimonies of devotees.

  16. “I think “Buddhist ethics” as understood in the West is a recently-created fraud…”– that’s a very provocative statement, David. And you’re not going to elaborate? Bummer.

  17. @ Sabio — Yes, measurement would be a huge plus. As you know, there are people working on this, and in ten years’ time maybe we’ll have some answers.

    @ Kate — Sorry, no! I don’t have time for it, and I think it probably wouldn’t be useful.

    Consensus Buddhists want to believe that Buddhism justifies contemporary Western liberal ethics, which it doesn’t. However, since I mostly agree with contemporary Western liberal ethics, I don’t see that much harm is done by this delusion. It’s an interesting example of myth-making, but maybe only for sociologists.

    For the case that Buddhism doesn’t justify contemporary Western liberal ethics, you can start with José Cabezon’s essay about Buddhist sexual ethics. What he says about sexual ethics is true more generally.

    The idea that Buddhism provides foundational justification for their ethics seems to be the main reason many Westerners call themselves Buddhists. This means that pointing out that they are wrong would produce huge upset, and probably no benefit.

  18. Looking forward to reading the article on “One Dharma.” The fault I can see in the consensus is trying to make a western/American Buddhism is that they are doing it by muddling all the currently existing forms together as if there’s a seed that they all share, and having no actual respect for ANY of the traditions. (this is, as I take it, what you are saying, stay with me) This does not mean a single Western/American Buddhism is impossible, as long as it allows ALL others to continue. The problem is in every other country, they didn’t have exposure to the others, they had a Patriarch or Guru or etc come in and teach them Buddhism. If we’d had this, we’d be a go for the American Buddhism the Consensus so desperately wishes existed. The fact is, we didn’t, so we can’t have that in the same way the other countries did, and I think we need to be okay with that instead of trying to make one single American Buddhism via manufactured means.

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