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.

When the Consensus leaders returned to America and began teaching in the late 1970s, they mainly taught meditation. Their encounters with modern Asian “Buddhist ethics” may have been personally useful, but they rarely gave more than cursory attention to it in their teaching, until the late 1980s.

Until the mid-1980s, vipassana was taught in the West with much less emphasis on ethics than in Southeast Asia. Since then, and particularly in the United States, an increasing stress has been placed on ethics and on the traditional Buddhist precepts for the laity. The change was to a great extent a response to both a wider cultural interest in ethics and to a significant number of ethical transgressions by Asian and Western teachers of Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada Buddhism.1

I’m not sure what “a wider cultural interest in ethics” means. However, most Baby Boomer Buddhists by then had children, and some had jobs with management responsibility. Both these turn the mind to moral issues. Growing demand from their Buddhist flock probably forced Consensus leaders into another reinvention of “Buddhist ethics.” This new system, addressing the specific moral issues of the day, simply repackaged leftish secular morality in Buddhist jargon. Suddenly Buddhism was sexually liberal, feminist, and environmentally conscious—ideas alien to even the most modern Asian Theravada of the time. My next two posts will examine this process, and its motivation, in greater detail.

The “guru crisis” was the other trend that made it urgent to invent a new Buddhist ethics. There was a rash of egregious behavior by teachers of Eastern religions, including prominent American-born Buddhists. This provoked a hysterical moral panic. However, probably something did need to be done.

The Protestant response to any moral problem begins with soul-searching: might I, personally, do something like that? How can I be sure I won’t? What principles would restrain me? This led to a new, more serious examination of ethics by American Buddhist leaders.

Of course, it would have been convenient if traditional Buddhist morality had something to say, but mostly it didn’t. Vinaya would theoretically prohibit sexual and financial abuse, but in practice it didn’t. Also, few American teachers were monks or nuns, so vinaya was irrelevant. Furthermore, perhaps the most egregious case was Ösel Tendzin, who taught Vajrayana, in which theoretically the authority of teachers over students is unlimited.

The Consensus leaders promoted a new ethical code for Buddhist teachers, notionally based on the lay precepts. Its invention was guided by the Dalai Lama, who convened an ecumenical Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers in 1993. The event was the de facto founding of the Consensus as a political organization. The participants issued an “Open Letter,” stating their consensus opinion on the ethics of Buddhist teaching.

The Dalai Lama had his own agenda, which he did not disclose to the Conference participants; at least one (Stephen Batchelor) wrote later that he felt deceived and used.2 Part of the Dalai Lama’s motivation was to prohibit Western Buddhist Tantra. The Open Letter (which he wrote much of, but—at the last moment—did not sign) does exactly that. Its central point is:

No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddhadharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts.

This is incompatible with Buddhist Tantra, in which it is critical that not only teachers, but also students, explicitly vow to violate the precepts.

A clear example is the samaya vow to drink alcohol in tsok. Although alcohol has a specific tantric mind-altering role, the function of the vow is also an unambiguous, in-your-face rejection of the precepts (and vinaya) as a whole. All tantrikas also vow to kill people when that is the right thing to do; and so on for the other precepts. Obviously the Dalai Lama understood perfectly that the Letter prohibited Tantra, even if some of the Westerners who signed it may not have.

Thus, in the West, Buddhist Tantra was banned specifically in the name of “Buddhist ethics.” (Now one reason I am writing about Buddhist ethics comes into focus!)

Of course, few Consensus teachers even attempt or pretend to live by the lay precepts. As we’ll see on the next page, the precepts contradict current secular morality, so they are not part of “Buddhist ethics”—not without radical reinterpretation, anyway.

But for Tantrikas, violation of the precepts is a fundamental point of principle, not just weaseling.

An upcoming page discusses several contradictions between Buddhist Tantra and “Buddhist ethics,” i.e. leftish secular morality. These contributed to the Consensus’s motivation for suppressing modern Western Tantra. I will sketch reasons I think Tantra is ethically right on these points, and leftish secular morality is wrong.

  1. Gil Fronsdal, “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, 1998. See also the discussion in his “Virtues without Rules“, 2002. 
  2. Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, pp. 204-5. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

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

  1. I suspect that the Tibetans and ancient indian Buddhists may have had some of the same issues, hence the famous Padmasambhava quote, here quoted by Khenpo Namdrol “My view is more vast than the sky, but my conduct is as fine as the smallest grain of sand.” We should not abandon the most subtle teachings on karma, the law of cause and effect. Following this advice, the gurus of the past also held the view that was greater than the sky, but followed the conduct prescribed by the teachings on cause and effect.”. As one rises through the vehicles one should not outwardly abandon the earlier vehicles for a number of reasons, clearly illustrated by the messes caused when this principle is abandoned. The more one is representing a formal Buddhism the more one must outwardly abide by these principles. The more one rises through the vehicles and the more one lives as a secret yogi the more one may live by the higher principles. A dzogchen yogi should be indistinguishable from a regular person or practitioner, unless one is clearly a crazy wisdom yogi, or a chodpa in those societies and everybody knows what you are up to, but that is not without its risks. This is one of the reasons for the practices to be secret and that they should not be openly discussed as this brings a number of risks for everybody involved. If one can not abide by these.guidelines then it is might be best for one not to be given the opportunity to ruin ones life and the reputation of ones religious community. In one sense the Dalai Lama’s proscription against tantra may have been shrewd. If Tantra is outwardly banned then its practitioners will have to be more secretive about it, as they should have been, for good reasons. If nobody suspects that you are a tantric then you won’t be being watched and publicly mocked, as the community can say “oh, we don’t do that stuff, we follow this mahayana stuff. We don’t know what you’re talking about”. Unfortunately, throwing out Tantra was going way too far. The Dalai Lama himself comes from a heavily Mahayana sutric tradition of Tantra so it is no surprise where he would put his emphasis. Still, what may be a little crazy about this idea is that I personally think that tantra and dzogchen/mahamudra (the inner view of tantra, really) is the view most suitable for the modern world on many levels. I can’t really see the appeal of the lower vehicles except as truly necessary developmental tools. Still, they are not places to stop. However, if one has not gotten these lessons elsewhere then they are absolutely necessary developmental exercises. I often, however, run into plenty of people who shake their head at tantra and say that that tantra stuff is silly, degenerate, and full of useless ritual and superstition. Then they will often state a view of the world that belongs to tantra and dzogchen/mahamudra, while at the same time promoting the practices and teachings that stand in complete opposition to it. A lot of westerners really need to do some more thinking and reading. Of course very few of them have ever actually read many of these texts. BTW, I like your idea of the goal being the development of Nobility, that sounds about right, and suitably undegenerate in orientation- a positive vision instead of the typical view of tantra as the rejection of norms.

  2. Yes, I agree with all that.

    The issue of secrecy in tantra is extremely complicated; I wrote a little about it here. Overall, I believe that keeping tantra secret at this point is likely to cause its extinction. However, I respect the view of those who say it should remain secret, and am careful not to reveal publicly anything that is not already in the open literature.

    I think that the Dalai Lama’s course of action was probably justifiable given his (mis)understanding of the political situation at the time. I don’t condemn him for it, although I wish things had gone differently.

    I personally think that tantra and dzogchen/mahamudra (the inner view of tantra, really) is the view most suitable for the modern world on many levels.

    Yes, that’s the central point of this blog. I’m not sure how effectively I’m communicating it, but I keep trying :-)

  3. Ah yes, Tsok — memory lane. It was my questioning comments on that post, that caused Aro Tantrist Buddhists to reject my application to study with their teacher. How dare I question tantra ethical techniques.

    It was ironic, that when I met practicing tantrists in person I found several bad mouthing each other’s behavior during the ritual that flouts the traditional Buddhist morality against nudity — a supposedly liberating practice. Yet these same people condemned my doubts and way of expressing my doubts.

    In the end, one could declare Tantric ethical systems as higher than liberal leftist ethics, but for me, this is an empirical claim. No matter how reasonable something sounds, I want it tested over time. We should be able to test if people change differently operating (supposedly) under different systems. My suspicion is that they don’t. But I have no more evidence there than those claim otherwise. — Remember the studies showing the Ethic Professors act no differently than us unsophisticated folks.

  4. when I met practicing tantrists in person I found several bad mouthing each other’s behavior

    That is a violation of samaya (tantric vows). Of course, it does happen; people taking vows doesn’t guarantee they’ll keep them consistently (or at all).

    one could declare Tantric ethical systems as higher than liberal leftist ethics

    As I said a couple of posts ago, I don’t think samaya is an ethical system at all, much less one that is higher than Western liberal ethics. It has some structurally interesting features that I’ll draw out in a post scheduled for about two weeks from now, though.

    this is an empirical claim. No matter how reasonable something sounds, I want it tested over time. We should be able to test if people change differently operating (supposedly) under different systems.

    I agree! As far as I know, there’s been very little empirical study of the effects of teaching ethics of any sort. I might be wrong, though. If anyone knows of anything, I’d love to hear about it!

  5. Concerning your contention that the Insight Meditation Society has imposed a Consensus Buddhism on the West and by extension, Buddhists all over the world; let’s look at the numbers:

    According to the IMS website, 20,000 people receive some sort of IMS publication: email, newsletter, books.
    IMS can only accommodate about 3,000 people annually in their North American retreat and study centres.

    Buddhists worldwide: approx. 500 million
    Buddhists as percentage of world population: 7 to 8 percent

    China has the largest population of Buddhists in raw numbers, approx. 244 million or about 18% of its population. Most Chinese Buddhists practice Mahayana or Chan Buddhism. Japan has either 45 or 85 million Buddhists (Pew vs. ARDA), either 36 or 67% of its population. Most Japanese Buddhists are Mahayana.

    The countries with the highest percentages of Buddhism per population are all Theravada countries (except Bhutan and Mongolia: Vajrayana), 50% or higher: Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar-Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos.

    US has just under 4 million Buddhists, or 1.3 percent
    UK has 196,000 Buddhists, or 0.4 percent.
    Canada as 500,000 Buddhists, or 1.5 percent
    Australia: 467,0000 or 2.1 percent
    North America: 1.1 percent
    Europe: 0.2 percent

    According to a demographic analysis reported by Peter Harvey (2013):
    • Eastern Buddhism (Mahayana) has 360 million adherents;
    • Southern Buddhism (Theravada) has 150 million adherents; and
    • Northern Buddhism (Vajrayana) has 18.2 million adherents.
    • Seven million additional Buddhists are found outside of Asia.

    So of the 7 million Buddhists found outside of Asia, twenty-thousand have some connection to Insight Meditation Society, even if it’s no more than receiving emails from the organization.

    By contrast, 378 million have no connection with any Theravada tradition.

    Of the 150 million who practice in a Theravada tradition, only twenty-thousand are even casually connected to Insight Meditation Society, that is, 0.013%, barely a blip on a global scale.

    So while I appreciate the disproportionate power that certain spokespersons from IMS might have, at 0.013 percent of Buddhists, in no way do they represent a worldwide consensus of what Buddhism is about.

    The 150 million Theravada Buddhists might vigorously disagree with the idea that the Insight Meditation Society resembles or represents their religious practice in any way. I currently practice in a Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka, taught by Sinhalese monks, in which the main meditation practice is not vipassana, but metta bhavana. Being a sangha of immigrants from Sri Lanka, it bears little resemblance to the white wealthy western converts of the Insight Meditation Society, either in culture or practice.

  6. Correction: 20,000 is 0.0000133% of 150,000,000 of Theravada Buddhists; and 0.00028571% of 7,000,000 Buddhists “outside of Asia”. I never was very good at math.

  7. your contention that the Insight Meditation Society has imposed a Consensus Buddhism on the West and by extension, Buddhists all over the world

    You invented that. I never said any such thing. Please be more careful!

    I have definitely not said anywhere that the Consensus has imposed anything on the non-Western world. I have said in several places that contemporary Asian Buddhism is mostly extremely different from the Consensus. I have said in several places that the Consensus is mainly an American phenomenon, not even “Western.” It does have some influence in other Western countries, but the modernist Buddhisms of other Western countries are somewhat different. I have said in several places that the Consensus is far from a majority of even American Buddhists. Most American Buddhists are ethnically Asian and practiced Buddhisms they imported with them, which are very different from the Consensus.

    The Consensus dominates white American middle-class Buddhism. (Or did—I think it’s fizzling now.) That gives it cultural significance out of proportion to the number of its followers.

    The number of Consensus followers is much larger than the number of people who attend IMS programs or who are on their membership roll. Elsewhere, I’ve estimated that it’s about a million, but that number is necessarily nebulous because it’s not well-defined who counts as a follower. Basically I’m counting the number of people who read books by the Consensus leaders and think of themselves as aligned with that view. It includes, for instance, people who have done an MBSR course, read a couple of Jack Kornfield books, and meditate occasionally. A million is probably a reasonable estimate, although it could be off by a factor of three, or possibly even ten.

  8. Total Buddhists in US, UK, Canada, Australia, (i.e. predominantly white, english-speaking countries): roughly 5 million. How many of these are Insight or some western version of Theravada? You’re saying one million or more are somehow “influenced” by or aligned with Consensus Buddhism. But you do not present any kind of rigorous statistical model for how you arrived at the one million. One million X “factor of 3” equals 3 million, more than half of the Buddhists in said countries, many of whom are immigrants and not the “Consensus” profile. One million X “factor of 10” equals twice as Buddhists than currently exist in said countries, 10 million vs. 5 million.

    What datasets did you use? What is your method of sampling? Are you over-counting, by counting all those who get emails from IMS + read a Jack Cornfield book + attended an MBSR retreat, who might be the same people? I really appreciate sociological analysis of religious phenomena, but it has to be supported by empirical evidence.

  9. You’re saying one million or more

    No, I said one million to within a factor of three, or ten. That might be as little as 100,000.

    What datasets did you use? What is your method of sampling?

    I said it was “a reasonable estimate.”

    If you explain why you think the precise number matters, I can try to defend or revise my estimate. So far, I haven’t understood what your point is (other than maybe “YOU GOT SOMETHING WRONG!!1!” which isn’t interesting since it’s a trivial point).

  10. Because you’ve create this boogeyman called “Consensus Buddhism” which is supposed to have taken over Western Buddhist practice and suppressed everything else, and imposed this silly thing called “western ethics” on everybody. But when you actually look at the numbers of people who might be involved with this “consensus buddhism” it’s a vanishingly small number of people, less than 100,000, if that, compared with the 7 million Buddhists “outside of Asia”, the 150 million Theravadins, and the 380 million Mahayana/Vajra practitioners. Conclusion: who cares what they think? who gives a shit? They don’t represent me as a western Buddhist. In fact, like you, I am very critical of what they teach. And furthermore, their ethical or moral positions are far better explained as a function of CLASS STATUS than it is by some other cultural factor, e.g. Californian, feminist, etc. I agree with you that they use Buddhism to wave some kind of flag showing that they belong to this exclusive group, but they don’t take any effective action based on their supposed ethics or morals. Such action requires taking political risks, tolerating conflict, fomenting dissent and being “not nice.” Instead, they actually use Buddhism to exempt themselves from amy moral, ethical or social responsibility.

  11. who cares what they think?

    I do, because they suppressed the form of Buddhism I happen to care about. (Among other misdeeds.) If you don’t care about modern Buddhist tantra, this whole critique may be irrelevant for you. (Or, it may be relevant in some other way.)

    If you find it irrelevant to your concerns, I suggest you stop reading it, instead of complaining about it.

    they don’t take any effective action based on their supposed ethics or morals.

    Yes; on that, we agree strongly!

  12. Why do you want tantra to be included in “Mindfulness Mayo?” As I asked you before, do you want something as complex and nuanced as Tantra to be homogenized into a marketable product like “consensus Buddhism”? If I were a tantra practitioner, I would be glad that they left my form of practice out of that mush.

  13. Why do you want tantra to be included in “Mindfulness Mayo?”

    I don’t. I never said I did.

    Please stop arguing with things I haven’t said and complaining about things I haven’t written. Can I suggest you take a couple days out to stop posting comments here?

  14. David, there seems to be an East Coast / West Coast thing happening here. I was chatting with Foster Ryan, who is actually a friend of mine, originally from New England. He was saying that in Los Angeles, he confronts the “Consensus” all the time. People talk about it, it seems to infect conversations about Buddhism in every sector. This is apparently a West Coast problem. I live on the East Coast, and I don’t mean Boston. I mean Atlantic Canada, Halifax, Nova Scotia. You have to believe me when I tell I have never heard anyone talk about a “consensus” here. I have never read “One Dharma” or Jack Kornfield’s books, and I don’t know anyone who has. The only “consensus” is the near total domination of Shambhala, which is Vajra. Their international headquarters is here, and they own huge amounts of property all over the island. People on the East Coast are Traditionalists. The Zen is really strict Soto Zen, none of this Brad Warner stuff. Theravada is an Asian immigrant form, with no trace of West Coast pop-psychology. Even East Coast IMS is traditional. The Barre Centre in Massachusetts split with the West Coast IMS precisely because of their rejection of the “consensus”. They insisted on a traditional Thai Forest practice. So that’s why I didn’t understand this frustration with the “Consensus” and I didn’t even know what it was—I have never experienced it here. But you should also understand that the “Consensus” doesn’t hold everywhere. It’s a California thing.

  15. From my perspective, buddhism has no ground for moral values at all. When the underlying principle is that everything is emptiness, then everything that comes from this notion is irelevant. So everything you will count as a buddhist morality will come from someone somwhere saying “I think it should be like this”. And this will work to the extent, that if someone actualy practice, at some point it will be seen through and abandoned(?).
    In Christianity, everything springs from the notion that there is an unique soul in everyone. This is a solid base (even if false, becouse it is unsolvable) – becouse it is creating a pernament value, to build morality on.

  16. Yes; in fact the next post in this Buddhist ethics series will be about this. If you take the Mahayana view of emptiness seriously, you end up with ethical nihilism. Mahayana philosophers have admitted that this is a problem pretty much from the beginning, and have proposed various solutions based on the “two truths” doctrine. (There’s a recent book about this, Moonpaths, that looks excellent.) It’s pretty clear that none of those solutions work, and that no solution can work within the Mahayana framework.

    On the other hand, all attempts to ground ethics in some Cosmic Ordering Principle (such as God) are eternalistic, and wind up with all the problems of eternalism.

    I will suggest that this can be resolved in a Dzogchen view, which understands emptiness and form to be inseparable. Ethics are necessarily both nebulous and patterned.

  17. Hi David, this revelation came as a tremendous shock to me. To me the DL was always a ‘good guy’; I had no idea he was trying to kill Tantra. The best way to lose a tradition is to make it secret, and that is effectively what he did by his decree. Of course, then the westerner ‘buddhists’ went and formed a secret vigilante group to track and harass suspected Tantrikas. I have been a Tantrik since birth; my mom was one of the first practicing Tantra in the west. I have been on the receiving end of online abuse, death threats, even physical violence orchestrated by that group. I have evidence to back up these allegations. Would like to consult with you on an appropriate course of action.

  18. Hi…. Well, I think the DL was doing what he thought was right. Coming shortly after the Ösel Tendzin disaster, it seemed reasonable. There were also internal considerations of Tibetan religious politics, which are extremely complicated and usually quite nasty.

    Some younger Tibetan lamas have figured out what you say—that tantra will die out if it is hidden—and they are more willing to teach it. This is a positive development. I think once the last of the exile lamas who were educated in Tibet die—which can’t be more than another decade—things will open up a lot. But it may be too late.

    I have been on the receiving end of online abuse, death threats, even physical violence orchestrated by that group. I have evidence to back up these allegations. Would like to consult with you on an appropriate course of action.

    Well… I have no expertise in this area. If threats are credible and you know who they are coming from, you can go to the police. Otherwise, maybe it’s something everyone just has to live with nowadays. (I wrote about online Buddhist death threats a couple years ago.)

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