Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra

Many of the Western creators of Consensus Buddhism say in their autobiographies that they went to Asia because they were disgusted with the sex-and-drugs hedonism of hippie culture. Coming from Protestant cultures, they were looking for a system of self-restraint, but they had rejected Christianity.

Traditional Buddhism is renunciate, not Protestant, and renunciation is also unacceptable to Americans. But Buddhist values had already been partially replaced with Protestant ones in the Asian modernist forms the Consensus founders encountered in the 1960s and 70s. They could, and did, continue that process.

The lay precepts against sexual misconduct and intoxication may have come at first as welcome repudiations of hippie self-indulgence. However, as we’ll see on the next page, they had to be loosened, reinterpreted, and effectively negated to function in America.

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How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics

Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality.

So, where did it come from, and why?

The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant scriptural quotes, said “compassion” a lot, and declared victory.

This replacement occurred in roughly three phases:

  1. Around 1850-1900, Victorian Christian morality replaced traditional morality in modernist Asian Buddhism. This hybrid was successfully re-exported to the West, but is now unknown in America, because Victorianism is considered old fashioned. It’s still influential in Asia.1
  2. Around 1900-1960, Western political theories were imported into Buddhist countries, and were declared “the Buddhist ethics of social responsibility.” This was the root of “engaged Buddhism,” one of the two main strands of current Western “Buddhist ethics.”
  3. In the 1990s, the recently-invented secular morality of the New Left, identity politics, and ecological consciousness was declared “Buddhist” by Consensus Buddhism. This is mostly what counts as “Buddhist ethics” in the West today, although most Asian Buddhists would reject it utterly.

So what?

Well, the question is: are we stuck with this stuff? Of course, advocates of “Buddhist ethics” would say “This is what The Buddha taught, so it is Eternal Truth!” But the correct answer is: No, ordinary people just made it up, over the past hundred and fifty years, to solve problems of meaningness that appeared newly in their times.

So, facing our own new problems of meaningness, we can—and should—invent something different. And since “Buddhist ethics” is half of Consensus Buddhism, this implies an extensive reinvention of Buddhism for the West.

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Buddhist morality is Medieval

Traditional Buddhist morality developed in feudal theocratic cultures. Mostly, it is typical for such societies: similar to what you’d find in Medieval Europe or the nastier parts of the contemporary Islamic world. It is crude, arbitrary, patriarchal, and often cruel.

In Europe, Enlightenment rationalism enabled smart people to say “wait, that’s nasty and stupid.” Christian morality gradually became less barbarous, and evolved into secular ethics.

Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional morality with Victorian Christian morality in the late 1800s, and with leftish secular morality in the the 1980s. (The two pages after this one discuss that.) The result is that modern “Buddhist ethics” has no similarity to traditional Buddhist morality, much of which would horrify Western Buddhists.

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Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system

On this page and the next, I will argue that traditional Buddhism has no ethical value for liberal, educated Westerners. There is no “ancient wisdom of the Buddha” to draw on when constructing a modern Buddhist ethics. That is why modern “Buddhist ethics” has nothing in common with the tradition.

These two pages may seem like an attack on traditional Buddhism, but my intent is only to dispel a modern illusion. The myth of “Buddhist ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, most of what Buddhism has to offer. It needs to be cleared away to make Buddhism visible again.

These pages might be misunderstood, at this point, as the core of the series on “Buddhist ethics.” They’re not; the uselessness of traditional Buddhist morality is just a background fact. We need it to understand why modern “Buddhist ethics” had to be invented as a replacement.

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“Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics

So-called “Buddhist ethics” is just contemporary American leftish secular morality.

By “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) I mean what is taught by Consensus Buddhism.

For several years, I have repeatedly asked:

Is there any significant issue on which “Buddhist ethics” disagrees with contemporary Western leftish secular ethics?

So far, no one has said “Yes, if you are an American Buddhist, you should do so-and-so, whereas leftish secular Americans think you should do the opposite.”1

Doesn’t that strike you as remarkable?

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“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud

“Buddhist ethics” is neither Buddhist nor ethics.

“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud: a fabrication created to deceive, passed off as something valuable that it is not, for the benefit of its creators and promoters.

“Buddhist ethics” is actually a collection of self-aggrandizing strategies for gaining social status within the left side of the Western cultural divide.

“Buddhist ethics” actively obstructs Buddhists’ moral and personal development. It has also deliberately obscured—and sometimes forcefully suppressed—most of Buddhism.

“Buddhist ethics” is gravely ill and will probably die shortly. In fact, I hope to drive a stake through its heart now. Its demise will open the door to new possibilities for Western Buddhism.

Some might find these statements surprising; possibly even “controversial.” Perhaps not all readers will immediately agree. Over the next several posts, I’ll explain why they are accurate, and why they matter.

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Fin de cycle

The edible gold indicator (II)

Early in 2006, I decided that the world was in a real estate finance bubble. I could detect a faint odor of euphoric greed—the smell that in 1999 concentrated in Silicon Valley into a stench of insanity.

I spent most of my time during the rest of the year learning about mortgage finance. By August, I was confident enough in my understanding of what was going on that I took large short positions in various banks, mortgage-related stocks, and mortgage debt derivatives. (A “short position” is an inverse investment: you make money if the value of something goes down, and lose money if it goes up.)

My calculations showed that the market had to crash by early 2007 at the latest. The money was going to run out. In one way, my timing was exactly right: August 2006 was the actual peak for US housing.

The financial market crash came two years later, though. What I had failed to take into account was that the late stage of a bubble is driven by fraud. The same was true in the late 90s, so I had a warning that I failed to heed. Then, WorldCom’s lies about its growth rate drove a trillion dollars of malinvestment. In 2006–2007, lying was systematically routinized at every stage of the mortgage finance process, resulting in several trillion dollars of malinvestment.

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