The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism

Secular “mindfulness” courses, promoted as stress-reduction treatments, have become more popular than Buddhism. A meditation method based on modern vipassana is their core.

Many Buddhists have strong mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that so many more people are experiencing the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation. On the other hand, “mindfulness” seems like weaksauce kitsch; it’s missing most of what’s important about Buddhism. There’s a worry that if Buddhism is “unbundled,” with its most attractive part available separately, it will disintegrate,1 and critical aspects of the whole will be lost. And isn’t the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

But… what is the important rest of Buddhism?

That’s a genuinely difficult, important question. I wrote about it in a post three years ago that foreshadows this one.

As I wrote that, Consensus Buddhism was organizing a political consensus that ethics is what makes it different from, and better than, secular mindfulness.2 They promoted and argued this in dozens of blog posts, mainstream media op-ed pieces, and pseudo-academic journals.3

In my 2012 post, I asked:

Is there any significant point on which American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics disagree?

My last several posts have explained why the answer is no. “Buddhist ethics” has nothing to do with Buddhism; it just is mainstream American leftist ethics. People who want that can get it elsewhere with less hassle, just as people who want meditation can get it elsewhere with less hassle.

So if Buddhism = mindfulness + ethics, there’s nothing left of Buddhism. It’s over.

What is the argument?

The organized Consensus response implied that secular mindfulness is not just different from Buddhism, but somehow wrong. However, few (if any) of their articles said so explicitly; much less did they explain why. This makes it difficult to understand what they think the problem is. I have tried hard to steelman the argument, but have failed so far.

A coherent argument might go:

Teaching mindfulness meditation without ethics will have such-and-such a bad outcome. Therefore, you shouldn’t do it. To prevent people doing it, we should take such-and-such an action.

But no one said that; instead they expressed vague “concern” about “appropriateness.”

Overall, the response consisted of agonized emoting, without any clear logic or conclusions. There is no “therefore” anywhere, and no statement of what should be done. Some of the most-cited essays appear to contradict themselves frequently, sometimes even within a single sentence:

This is why Buddhists differentiate between Right Mindfulness and Wrong Mindfulness. The distinction is not moralistic: the issue is whether the quality of awareness is characterized by wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities that lead to human flourishing and optimal well-being for others as well as oneself.4

(“Wholesome intentions for the well-being of others” seem an unambiguously moral issue.)

The primary “concern” about “appropriateness” is the propriety of teaching mindfulness in corporations and the military. Here one might expect an argument like:

Teaching mindfulness without ethics in the military is wrong because what soldiers do is kill, which is contrary to Buddhist ethics, and mindfulness might make them more effective at killing. To prevent this, we should organize a political coalition to try to shame the US military into stopping. This will fail, obviously, but sometimes you have to speak out against evil anyway.

Instead, Ronald Purser’s “The Militarization of Mindfulness,” which is as strong a denunciation as I could find, concludes:

the contemplative community needs to reflect on whether military adaptations of [mindfulness] are in accordance with the dharma. And if they are not, both the Western Buddhist sangha and leaders in the [secular mindfulness] community need to confront the thorny ethical dilemmas with courage and honesty.

The recommendation is to “reflect” and to “confront ethical dilemmas,” not to actually do anything. In fact, none of the pieces I read recommended actually doing anything.

This is the pattern of Protestant-derived ethical practice. The two steps are (1) soul searching, to locate sin within yourself, and (2) struggling to install the correct moral attitude. This mentalist version of ethics is all in your head; external action is not important.

What’s ethics got to do with it?

Many secular mindfulness teachers have responded to the critique. Some5 made what I consider the correct dismissal:

Ethics is not our business! It has no more to do with meditation than with carpentry. Occasionally, ethical issues do arise in carpentry, and possibly carpentry training should include a little teaching on that. Ditto mindfulness.

Most,6 however, have taken a defensive line:

You don’t understand—we do teach ethics, but covertly. In fact, we teach the whole of Buddhism, but without the jargon and mythology, which most of our students would reject.

Here the Consensus side has one, and possibly two, valid points. First, teaching ethics covertly seems unethical; and it seems especially unethical if it’s supposedly a specific religious system of ethics being taught covertly in secular institutions. Purser points out prominent MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) teachers describing it as totally secular when speaking to non-Buddhists, but as including the whole of Buddhism when talking to Buddhists.

Second, the critics point out that mindfulness meditation alone, even including its supposed implicit ethics, is unlikely to bring an end to capitalism and the military.7 It might not even significantly transform them! One can only agree. If any secularists say it will, I am reasonably confident they are mistaken.8

But what’s the point of this? That mindfulness instructors should tell soldiers that they will certainly go to hell if they kill anyone? That they should recite the litany of evil actions of Google when they teach there? No one has suggested such a thing. Would the military or Google allow that? No. Would it be effective if they did? No.

The idea that meditation plus ritual invocations of sacred leftist values would end or transform capitalism and war seems just as laughable as the idea that meditation alone could. Railing about corporate evil always scores you virtue points, and Buddhist critics recite long lists of specific corporate and military wrong-doings. This seems meant to underline that those people are really, really bad, as if we didn’t know they thought that. But everyone does know.

I want to find a coherent argument, but (as in the whole debate) the thinking appears associationistic. It operates at the level of sympathetic magic. Corporations and the military are ritually impure. We Buddhists have been contaminated by their impurity, transmitted to us by the secularists, so to purify ourselves we must perform public rituals of repentance. The secularists seem to fail to realize how impure the demonic institutions are, so we’re reminding them forcefully. If they still refuse to take part in the purification ritual, they must be cast out as witches lest they continue to channel impurity to Buddhists.

The debate is confusing partly because the two sides have almost identical worldviews. It’s a hairsplitting theological dispute between one sect and a recent schismatic offshoot. In fact, most of secularists wear two hats, and are also Consensus Buddhists. So it’s as much an internal debate as a schism.

Which ethics?

The Buddhist side of the debate always mentions that the tradition insisted on the importance of learning meditation only with, or even after, extensive training in ethics. This is essentially false. The word translated as “ethics” is sila, which in the meditative context meant specifically “renunciative discipline.” Vipassana was seen as the final phase of a long renunciative path. The absolute minimum sila was the Eight Precepts, which include complete celibacy. Trying to meditate if you had any lustful feelings would be a pointless failure. Complete celibacy was required even in some modern lay meditation systems the Consensus founders learned in Asia in the 1970s.

Besides that, few if any Consensus Buddhist leaders maintain even the Five Precepts. Whatever sort of ethics they are talking about, it has nothing to do with traditional Buddhism.

It’s interesting that, although they are criticizing the secularists, they do not allege any specific ethical lapses by them, at all. All of the specific ethical criticisms are of corporations and the military. They do not say that “consorting with demons is sinful,” but that seems to be the implicit form of the argument.

The military kills people, which does violate the First Precept. Otherwise, however, the “ethical” criticisms concern issues of social justice. The boundary between ethics and politics is nebulous; but social justice is usually considered a political matter, not an ethical one. Nevertheless… as Hozan Alan Senauke suggested in an interview on “Wrong Mindfulness,”

if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed.

This is a fine example of FTFY Buddhist ethics.

Several authors go further, and claim that meditation always was rooted in social justice. For instance, Purser and Loy:

Decontextualizing mindfulness from… its foundation in social ethics amounts to a Faustian bargain.9

And here’s Funie Hsu of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship:

We must ask with pressing compassion, “What of the central tenet of mindfulness—social justice—in this [secularized] curriculum?”

This is nonsense, of course. There’s no social justice in traditional Buddhism. That was added only in the early 20th century, in Chinese Humanistic Buddhism, which openly took its social concern from Christianity because there was none in Buddhism.

Hsu’s article makes me wonder whether the central complaint is “everyone must publicly swear allegiance to a leftist conception of social justice, and the secularists are trying to be closeted about it.”

No one needs these morality lectures, anyway

Who could learn what, from the inclusion of “Buddhist ethics” in mindfulness courses?

Christopher Titmuss:

I have some concern about these courses, which at the present time do not include any exploration into the main sources of major stress like war, environmental degradation, or tensions that exist between people and nation states.

War, environment degradation, and “tensions between people and nation states” are bad. This will not come as news to any Western adult. Nor does it have any practical relevance to the issues people come to mindfulness courses for.10 Presumably the intention, instead, is Victorian “moral improvement”: to induce everyone to endorse a stance of pious horror at the world’s ills.

War, environment degradation, and “tensions between people and nation states” are also topics about which traditional Buddhism has little to say, and sometimes says the opposite of what Titmuss believes. Consensus Buddhism, meanwhile, has nothing distinctive to say about these issues. You can get all the same stuff from Rachel Maddow, with better jokes, sharper analysis, and less jargon.

Today’s children spend their days awash in moral instruction to an extent unprecedented even at the height of the Victorian era: children’s television shows preach incessantly on subjects ranging from recycling to racism; teachers are asked to give homilies as well as instruction, on everything from drugs to civility.11

Any 12-year-old who has grown up in a leftish household can explain the horror of discrimination, and how greedy global corporations exploit workers, ruin the environment, and promote wars for profit. Nevertheless, Grandad Buddhist wants to lecture Google employees about how racism, sexism, and capitalism are bad, OK? Wow, thanks Gramps, that’s shocking news!

These were important insights in 1975, but leftist ideology has forty years of further development: layers and layers of stuff on top of the old New Left concepts every kid knows. Sexism is bad, but what is sexism? Feminism split into sex-positive and sex-negative wings all the way back in the 1980s, and has never healed the schism. They disagree fiercely about serious ethical questions. Which side does “Buddhist ethics” support, and why? I don’t think you’ll get an answer to that. Its “sexual ethics” are non-existent: “we undertake to be mindful about how we use our sexuality” is about the extent of it. Implicitly, Consensus Buddhism’s position is just “obey local cultural conventions of sexual morality.” When those are in dispute, all Buddhism can do is look awkward and say “compassion” a lot.

Hip social justice warriors are now fighting the TERF Wars and #Gamergate. You need to have swallowed gobs of poststructuralist queer theory to make sense of TERFs; has Buddhism got anything to say about that? (No.) #Gamergate adds an extra level of meta to itself every couple months. Last I checked, it’s about whether people are lying about whether or not it is about the fact that it used to be a disagreement about what the conflict was previously about. Before it got incomprehensibly self-referential, it may—or may not—have had something to do with video games. Has Buddhism got anything to say about that? (No.)

Consensus Buddhists can’t actually believe anyone would learn anything from sermons on “Buddhist ethics.” So why do they want every meditation instructor to preach it?

Some people like hearing familiar moral platitudes, as reassurance that they are good people. This desire is probably a common, compassionate reason Buddhist teachers repeat them. It doesn’t explain why Buddhists would want to force them down the throats of people who disagree.

What is the motivation?

Anthropologists make a useful distinction between “emic” and “etic” descriptions of native behavior. Emic analysis tries to get inside the natives’ heads, to figure out what they think their actions mean. Clearly, I have failed at that.

Etic analysis stands outside the culture, ignores the natives’ opinions, and tries to understand what they are up to in terms of general patterns of human behavior. I will attempt etic explanation in terms of:

  • sacredness protection
  • property protection
  • tribal loyalty signaling
  • relative virtue signaling
  • badge policing

I suspect all these do motivate the anti-secularist critique to some extent.

Sacredness protection

All human societies band together to protect, at any cost, whatever they hold sacred, against defilement by barbarians. The holy essence of Buddhism must be defended against appropriation and desecration.

In this dispute, the Consensus was cast as “the traditionalists” against “contemporary mindfulness.”12 This is highly ironic, considering that only a decade ago, the Consensus was “modern Buddhism,” and “the traditionalists” were advocates of mid-20th-century Westernized Asian export Buddhism. That, in turn, was “modern Buddhism,” as contrasted with “traditional Buddhism,” which—although it predated Western influence—was itself only a few centuries old. Each of these layers deliberately obscured the previous one. Each “tradition” fought to preserve its sacredness against the successive waves of barbarian invaders—unsuccessfully.

MBSR as “stealth Buddhism” is a more-Consensus-y version of Consensus Buddhism. It takes one step further the Consensus program of stripping anything un-American out of Buddhism.

But what was lost? Not ethics; there is no “Buddhist ethics,” and MBSR promotes, covertly, the same American leftish morality Consensus Buddhism did overtly.

All that MBSR removed—its designers are explicit about this—was brand identification. The word “Buddhism” is gone, along with the few dozen Pali and Sanskrit terms the Consensus retained. That’s all.

The Consensus critique was incoherent because there was already nothing left to protect. Their writing was bewildered because they were casting around looking for a holy essence, and they couldn’t find anything. Consensus Buddhism had already thrown it away, and forgot it had done so.

I sympathize. I too feel called to protect the sacredness of Buddhism, and I have my own reservations about secular mindfulness. I do worry that successive modernizations risk permanently obscuring what is most valuable in Buddhism. It is not that earlier versions are necessarily better overall, but that they contain particular resources—principles and practices—which obscurations make unavailable.

However, the holy essence I want to preserve was already thoroughly stomped on by the Consensus itself, and buried under a pile of muck.

The formula “Buddhism = meditation + ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, almost all of Buddhism. “Buddhism = mindfulness + branding” does no worse.

Ownership

Partly the dispute was just a turf war. In a cynical interpretation: if meditation is separated out from Buddhism, we’ll have nothing left to sell.

Purser writes:

Contemporary mindfulness teachers are fond of saying that traditional Buddhists “don’t own mindfulness” (Goldstein 2013) or as Monteiro et al. (2015, p. 7) noted, “whether Buddhism has sole propriety rights to the concept of mindfulness and its dissemination.”

Consensus Buddhism was not able to enforce its property rights. It couldn’t; any such project is obviously doomed. The Consensus Buddhists can try to make “contemporary” teachers feel bad, but mindfulness meditation has escaped into the wild; it’s way too late to hold onto it. The horse has bolted, found a home in lush mountain fields, romanced a pretty mare, and raised a family of fine foals. And the barn door is still ajar.

So there is a fallback position:

However, the dispute here, as Shonin et al. (2013) showed, is not one of intellectual property but of truth in advertising. Instrumental and de-ethicized forms of mindfulness might be better represented by shedding the term mindfulness altogether and relabeling their programs as some form of attentional control training.

I.e., we should be allowed to keep our brand name, at least; give it back! (Despite the fact that “mindfulness” is a dubious translation of sati.)

The cynical interpretation would be plausible, except that “mindfulness” teachers get paid a lot better than “Buddhism” teachers.13 And whereas “Buddhist teacher” once had some prestige value, it’s now a lower-class service job. Some individual teachers have rebranded themselves as mindfulness instructors, for better pay and respect. Why not all?

Tribal loyalty signaling

Saying “capitalism is bad!” is always worth a few points—it’s outgroup-punishing—but wins way more points if you invent a new reason capitalism is bad. “Capitalism is bad because it teaches meditation!” was novel, and the first dozen people to say it in print got a status boost.

Relative virtue signaling

“You people are collaborating with the enemy tribe!” is a strong argument that our clan is holier than your clan.

The contemplative community needs to reflect on whether military adaptations of [mindfulness] are in accordance with the dharma. And if they are not, both the Western Buddhist sangha and leaders in the [secular mindfulness] community need to confront the thorny ethical dilemmas with courage and honesty

suggests a Maoist struggle session in which Consensus Buddhists could verbally abuse and humiliate the secularists for ideological impurity. Which is what they seemed to want to do. The defensive “We do too teach ethics!” reaction from some secularists suggests it worked, at least a bit.

Badge policing

I suspect a major motivation was exclusionary. (See my earlier post on Consensus Buddhism’s deliberate exclusion of various groups.)

The hope was to keep meditation out of reach of bad people, such as soldiers, business executives, and (shudder) Republicans.14 If Republicans are allowed to meditate, meditating no longer proves you hate the military, capitalism, and (shudder) Republicans. It no longer proves you are a good person. It no longer proves your loyalty to the leftist tribe.

The Consensus could police the badge by making sure meditation was always taught along with great dollops of “Buddhist ethics” (i.e. leftist tribal posturing, including frequent denunciations of militarism, capitalism, and sexism). That drove the bad people away.

But once the “ethics” was allowed to be implicit, some Republicans didn’t notice it.

And that was the end.

The end

Consensus Buddhism’s attempt to save itself from the barbarian horde came too late. It failed.

Consensus Buddhism is over. Over as a hegemonic political force: it could not prevent a major schism, in which the schismatics absconded with the sacred treasure.

Consensus Buddhism will, I hope, continue to benefit those whom it benefits; but it can no longer stand in the way of alternatives.


  1. The shattered Buddha statue in this site’s header image is a reference to that. 
  2. More traditional Buddhists have a different response, that Buddhism is about enlightenment, the total and permanent end of all suffering, next to which stress reduction is trivial. This is true to tradition; but not, in my opinion, realistic. However, it does give a consequential answer to “what do you have to offer that secular mindfulness doesn’t,” and so should be taken seriously. 
  3. I have read at least a couple dozen of the articles most often cited in the debate. I did not find that enjoyable, and can’t recommend that you follow my example. For a lengthy (but partisan) review article with numerous citations, see Ronald Purser’s “Clearing the Muddled Path of Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: a Response to Monteiro, Musten, and Compson.” 
  4. From Ron Purser and David Loy’s “Beyond McMindfulness,” which is the central text for the movement. 
  5. Papers by Lindahl and Davis, for example, take approximately this line. See also Payne’s “What’s Ethics Got to Do with It? ” for an interesting outsider view. 
  6. The most-cited paper taking this general line is “ Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path inthe Tangle of Concerns” by Monteiro et al. The last two paragraphs of Seth Segall’s “In Defense of Mindfulness” are a particularly clear and concise statement. 
  7. Frequently-cited arguments to this effect are due to Kevin Healy and Christopher Titmuss. See also Purser’s long review, which devotes several pages to the topic, and his recent “Corporate mindfulness is bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, you’re working harder and being paid less.” 
  8. I have not found any clear-cut instances of secularists making such claims, but have not made greatly strenuous efforts to locate them. 
  9. Actually, if Purser and Loy understood that mindfulness meditation was invented in the 20th century, by people who were promoting a modern social agenda—albeit not the same one Consensus Buddhism has—it would be quite true that it has a foundation in social ethics. But generally Consensus Buddhist marketing promotes “the ancient tradition of vipassana as taught by The Buddha Himself,” so that’s probably not what they meant. 
  10. The political wing of Consensus Buddhism argues that individual suffering largely reflects structural social injustices. To whatever extent this is true, I don’t see how it could be helpful to preach it in an eight-week meditation course. 
  11. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise
  12. For example by Monteiro et al. 
  13. “Mindfulness” teachers are better paid than “Buddhism” teachers, even though most Buddhist teachers are enormously better trained and more knowledgeable about meditation. I think this should be a major issue for all Western Buddhists—students as well as teachers. I am resisting writing more about it. 
  14. For the record, I am not a Republican, nor any other species of rightist. (I am also not a leftist of any sort, nor a centrist.) 
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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

44 thoughts on “The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism”

  1. except there is more than ethics+stress reduction. There is the aspirational, imaginative aspect taught in the tantric practices, the methods of which (e.g. visualizations) circumvent conceptual thinking about notions of non-self. I personally feel this approach–more so than strictly intellectual ethical teachings–deeply “disrupts” or alters mental patterns in order to help us integrate such abstract notions more authentically into our felt, daily experience.

  2. Lisa Roiter, don’t forget that these visualization teachings are traditionally done on top of Mahayana teachings on the Nature of existence and its relation with form- so mind training to retrain our perception of things; they are taught on top of previous meditations designed to loosen our attachment to things as they are and as wish we wish they would be and that motivate us to want to live and experience things differently; and are taught on top of practice in self-discipline and the development of at least a measure of self-restraint and renunciation whereby we have the ability to disengage from the lower drives that are initially in control of our minds. Once we learn tantric visulaization techniques the visualizations contain mnemonics of all these previous stages of teaching, and in fact these techniques are not properly done without these previous understandings being developed. So it is not just the techniques that disrupt, but it is the entire package contained within them that make this disruption work. I agree, these techniques are vastly superior. OTOH, why not practice these other vehicles in order to master those earlier skills if that’s where they’re at. They truly do lead like steps to tantra.Tantra is a whole lot more fun though.

  3. “… if the Buddha were teaching today he would be teaching a more explicitly social doctrine. He would recognize that we have created systems and structures of suffering and that the suffering is not just about individuals experiencing racism, sexism, and various kinds of oppression; what we have are structures of suffering that also have to be addressed.

    This is a fine example of FTFY Buddhist ethics.

    Several authors go further, and claim that meditation was always rooted in social justice. For instance, Purser and Loy:

    Decontextualizing mindfulness from… its foundation in social ethics amounts to a Faustian bargain.”

    Interesting, isn’t it, that the Catholics are experiencing something similar with the current “social justice Jesus” revision of dogma? In that realm there are even more public, and dramatic, collisions of old and new paradigms being noised about the media. Watching the Pope vie with the Dalai Lama for the World Heavyweight Sainthood title is quite entertaining.

    Maybe there is some general reformation going on– across many religions– of thought about the function and value of social institutions and authority of all sorts.

  4. “Mindfulness” teachers are better paid than “Buddhism” teachers

    I’m not sure that that is true. Some of the more prominent western Buddhism teachers have made small fortunes off of their books.

    I think the advantage of “[Secular] Buddhism” as a brand vs “Mindfulness” (for the baby boomer set at least) is that there is both a higher level of perceived gravitas to the former, as well as higher barriers to entry for newcomers.

    Take Stephen Batchelor. He has no particular credentials as a teacher. He wasn’t empowered by any traditional lineage to teach, nor does he have any academic credentials. But most people don’t understand that. He managed to parlay a few youthful years in Asia into a lucrative thirty-year career as a purported Buddhist scholar. His success depends on the fact that he is able to tell himself and his audience exactly what they want to believe about Buddhism, and do it from a seemingly authoritative position. Would that be possible if he was teaching “Mindfulness?” I doubt it. It worked for Kabat-Zinn, but he is a professor of medicine at a prestigious university.

  5. Kate Gowen

    the Catholics are experiencing something similar with the current “social justice Jesus” revision of dogma

    That’s interesting—I didn’t really know about it. I think you’re probably right that this is a broad phenomenon.

  6. Greg — I’m not sure either, but I know quite a few Buddhist teachers who get paid almost nothing as Buddhist teachers, and also work as secular mindfulness teachers, where they get paid a lot more. My sample might be atypical, however.

    Some of the more prominent western Buddhism teachers have made small fortunes off of their books.

    I’d guess this is less than a dozen, based on what I know about the economics of Buddhist books. I’d guess there’s about as many people who have written best-selling mindfulness books. (But, these are only guesses.) Either way, my observation is that the vast majority of Buddhist teachers either do it as a hobby or accept a poverty-level income.

    Was Stephen Batchelor’s career “lucrative”? I don’t know about his personal finances, but I’d guess (again just a guess, and I would be curious for an actual answer) he has not made more than the median British income.

    His success depends on the fact that he is able to tell himself and his audience exactly what they want to believe about Buddhism, and do it from a seemingly authoritative position.

    Yes, I do find this odd about him. I like him and his writing, but his religious certainty about things he seems to have just made up is peculiar.

    Would that be possible if he was teaching “Mindfulness?” I doubt it. It worked for Kabat-Zinn, but he is a professor of medicine at a prestigious university.

    It certainly worked very well for Chade-Meng Tan. He’s an actual zillionaire, and probably more famous than Stephen Batchelor, in the world at large.

    There’s other cases, but unless we get quantitative, which would be difficult, it’s not possible to say definitively which is a better career path. The word I hear on the street, though, is that if you want to make money, “mindfulness” is the way to go.

  7. Its “sexual ethics” are non-existent: “we undertake to be mindful about how we use our sexuality” is about the extent of it. Implicitly, Consensus Buddhism’s position is just “obey local cultural conventions of sexual morality.” When those are in dispute, all Buddhism can do is look awkward and say “compassion” at lot.

    So true, and soooo frustrating.

    Reading this blog series, I realize that a lot of the questions that drive me to practice are actually ethical ones, or have an ethical component:
    What does it mean to live a good life?
    What qualities do I need to cultivate to support this kind of life and what practices help with that cultivation?
    How / where does money and financial management relate to this?
    How / where do the fun parts of drinking and casual drug use relate to this?
    How / where does exploring sexuality outside a conventional relationship relate to this,**including for women**?

    And perhaps most importantly, where are the fun people who are tackling these topics head on?? My experience with a lot of practice groups, both Buddhist and progressive Christian, is that they basically avoid these questions because they are hard and there is very little, in reality, from tradition to pull from. My experience with philosophers is that there so much talking and so little practice. Or sex.

    Currently, I practice with Dharma Ocean and a small progressive Christian group, which are both life-affirming, fully inclusive of women, and not judgemental of emotions like anger, excitement and desire—even if they still usually avoid discussing the juiciest topics directly. Would be very interested to hear about others’ experience and how they are working this out.

  8. “So if Buddhism = mindfulness + ethics, there’s nothing left of Buddhism”. One may view this as funny: at the core of Buddhism itself is emptiness. It should be like that, or something is wrong with Buddhist philosophy.

    But putting jokes aside, I think there are a lot of people who are interested in meditation but not in Buddhism. People who want to learn techniques of personal transformation or personal growth and think some kind of meditation practice could be something in that direction, but are not interested in joining any religion (because they might be affiliated to one already or they do not want any religion or ideology at all=. It meditation works or is good for anything (e.g. simply as attention training), it should be possible to learn it without any ideological or religious superstructure. I think there are lots of people who would like to learn meditation but will keep away from any teacher who is trying to foist some religion or ideology on them at the same time, including ethical teachings. In fact, the smallest trace in the direction of religion bundeled with learning the methods would alarm such people and drive them away.

    On the other hand, those who are interested in any form of Buddhism as such may safely ignore such non-Buddhist meditaion practices. There might simply be two different target groups. What are these people afraid of. Those who attend the “secular” meditation courses would not have come to the Buddhist teachings anyway.

    And such methods are not owned by Buddhist. They existed before (e.g. in Yoga, from where, according to the stories, as far as I know, the Buddha learnt them) and might even be older. I would not be astonished if the real origin of meditation is stone age spear fishing or something like that, where success depended on sustaining high concentration for a long time (the traditional attribut of Shiva is the trident, originally a fishing tool – o.k., I am speculating here).

    The question of military use of such techniques is a special and intersting one. I think there are plenty of examples inside the history of Buddhism itself of the military use of such techniques and the close connection of military and Buddhism (in Japan, in China, and probably elsewhere, I am not an expert on this).

  9. Emma — These are very interesting questions; thank you! It’s ironic that, after making a big fuss about “Buddhist ethics,” there’s no Buddhist group that has anything to say about the ethical questions people actually have, as far as I know. (Other than traditionalists who say “that’s just bad,” of course.)

    And perhaps most importantly, where are the fun people who are tackling these topics head on?

    20 years ago, there was a substantial community in San Francisco doing just that. There might still be; I don’t know! At that time, there was a significant overlap between the alt-sex and alt-religion communities, and many smart people in that intersection doing some serious thinking. I don’t hear anything about that anymore from there, but that may just be because I left 15 years ago.

    A bit further back in my personal history, Wicca was entirely accepting of non-standard sexual practices and intoxicant use. I have sort of assumed that it still is, but maybe it’s gotten conservative in its old age? There were, however, only a handful of people there doing any serious thinking. Maybe there’s none left.

  10. From this morning’s email inbox: “Assorted Thoughts On Polyamory” from Ozymandias, who is smart and funny and kind and thinks hard about sexual ethics (in a non-academic way).

    Elsewhere, I’m going to argue (Real Soon Now) that ethical thinking has to be phenomenological and involved (rather than rational and abstract, as moral philosophy almost all is). We figure out ethics by doing our lives and trying to make sense of them; there is no other way.

    I woke up this morning worrying about a friend who I haven’t heard from in a while, who has a tendency to depression, and I was wondering about what responsibility I have if a depressive spiral has started. “How much responsibility do I have?” is a central question of everyday ethics, and one for which no academic theory has anything useful to say.

    Levinas, the most phenomenological of moral philosophers, argues that our responsibility is infinite, to everyone. This is stupid because it’s useless. Ethics has to be about action, and we can’t take infinite action on behalf of everyone. Practical action implies trade-offs; practical ethics has to help make those.

    Levinas is popular among Buddhist intellectuals, because he echoes the Bodhisattva ideal, which is stupid for the same reason: infinite responsibility with finite means is meaningless.

    There’s a correct insight, though. There are no absolute or a priori limits on responsibility. It is not possible to find rules that say “You definitely do/don’t have a responsibility to do so-and-so for a person who stand in such-and-such a relationship with.” Ethics is always somewhat nebulous, and therefore potentially unbounded in its demands. You may be called on to die to save another person.

    For most of us, that is unlikely, however. Ethics is always also somewhat patterned. (This is the point the Bodhisattva ideal misses, or deliberately suppresses.) We actually aren’t responsible to most people for most things. It’s critical to recognize that, so that we can make intelligent choices about action.

  11. The Future of Buddhism:

    Gen X/Y and Millennials will not be practicing in a single lineage, single guru sanghas. Those are the Boomerist communities that will die with the Boomers. It was based on a scarcity model, which came from a time when Buddhism and its teachers were indeed scarce commodities. Buddhism is now ubiquitous. Younger generations will practice in online sanghas. Dharma and practice will be a self-mixed mash-up of lineages, teachings and practices that the individual creates for her/himself.

    Practice experience will take place at multi-week ’burning man’ type “events”, buddhafield festivals that will mix multiple lineages and practices with festival music, arts and lifestyle experiments.

    Vajra gaming: become a Buddhist tantric deity in an virtual Vajra world and experience your divine emptiness.

    More Geshe Michael Roches, only worse. Fake tantric Lamas will appear everywhere, especially online, and will rake in millions from suckers who don’t know any different. Many will drink the kook-aid in a proliferation of tantric cults.

    Scientology-type pyramid schemes will proliferate within Buddhist Awakening Enterprises. Buddhistic teachings (SNB’s “Buddhemes”) will be mixed with psychoactive drugs and electronic neuro-enhancement technologies that will promise super-consciousness and neuro-liberation for the clueless rich who can afford it.

    Evangelical Buddhism: on a mission to wake up the world, cable and youtube hucksters will create super-fundamentalist Buddhist “ministries” and “super-churches” that will rake in millions from neurotic westerners seeking Buddhist salvation. Soka Gakkai and NKT are among first of this type.

    Buddhist skeptics, like Stephen Batchelor, will come to be seen as the boring but quaint “realists” who told us that all this stuff could happen and warned us not to be fooled by it.

  12. And no, there will be no more Buddhist “ethics”. That will be completely forgotten, ridiculed as a useless relic of “Victorian Buddhism”. It will be replaced by the primacy of direct experience, enhanced by psychoactive drugs and electronic “awakening” apps.

  13. I’ve been reading this series with some puzzlement, as if it came from a somewhat parallel world. I’m a long-time practising Buddhist in southern Europe, where as far as I can tell neither protestantism nor what you call “consensus Buddhism” are much of a thing. My experience is with fairly traditional Tibetan Buddhism, with actual Tibetan lamas teaching in the West. Mindfulness trainings are popping up here and there quite strongly, and everyone in the Buddhist circles I frequent thinks this is a good thing. And the concept of “Buddhist ethics” is not a common phrase at all around here; is it an American phenomenon? The last I’ve seen it was in the online “Journal of Buddhist Ethics”, which seemed bland and not really very Buddhist to me. The translation of one of Jamgön Kongtrul’s volumes was also titled “Buddhist Ethics”, which is weird but understandable mistranslation.

    Anyway, thanks for finally making it clear what it is that you’re reacting to with this whole series of posts. I was entirely unaware of a split of opinion between the American Buddhists and the Mindfulness people. Either way it doesn’t seem so much of an issue of ethics, so much as communities of people having fights in the process of figuring out the boundaries of their in-group, and how to represent themselves to the rest of the world. (From a cursory look, the same diagnostic seems to apply to the “TERF” and “Gamergate” controversies you mention, which sounds to me like a perfectly good reason for Buddhism not to have much to say about them either).

    In any case, regarding the whole question of Buddhism and Ethics, my experience of Buddhism is that each of the stage of training has made me a better person in specific ways. Starting with the 5 lay vows (in Tibetan Buddhism as far as I know the lay vows are just the first 5; taking more makes you a (non-fully-ordained) monk or nun), progressing on to the contemplations of shunyata, Buddha Nature, the different stages of relative bodhichitta, and so on up to tantric practices and attitudes.

    At each stage, the specific trainings and wordings are challenging, and training with them doesn’t necessarily mean you end up embodying them or even accepting them 100%, but you do get through a point where something changes. I think it’s very hard to make sense of Buddhism (at least of the Tibetan variety) without considering the gradual application of a whole variety of views and practices (roughly corresponding to the yanas).

    This makes it very difficult to pinpoint a clear response from (Tibetan) Buddhism on any ethical issue; the answer you would get from a lama might well be very different depending on who asks and how they assess you.

    Finally, I think the way you represent the way different strands of Buddhism have adapted to changing values in the world in unnecessarily negative. Buddhism as a tradition wasn’t born with ethical answers applicable to the whole world for the whole future – in fact the Buddha himself is said to have left the possibility open for the Vinaya rules to change after his parinirvana. Buddhism is a living tradition that does not operate in a vacuum; when the rest of the world undergoes paradigm shifts in ethical thinking, in response to changing needs or cultural shifts, most of Buddhism usually moves along. This is helped by the fact that from its very beginning, and throughout its history of spread into different countries, Buddhism tends to borrow most of its day-to-day ethics from the surrounding culture. But at the same time, as a formally conservative tradition, all sorts of not-really-operative material accumulates, often given lip service but not really considered all that relevant. This mechanism is not particularly a 21st century innovation from Western Buddhists – it’s the very same strategy Buddhism has been using to evolve at all throughout 25 centuries of existence. SoYou have to learn to read between the lines, listen to the tone of things, and sometimes get your guidance from unspoken patterns you notice yourself (or, as I said above, ask a qualified teacher for personal advice, who will attempt to assess these things for you).

    Buddhist ethical training and Western ethical theories are really not very much alike at all. This is quite unlike ontology and epistemology, where many aspects converged closely enough to make detailed comparisons possible (see George Dreyfus “Recognizing Reality” for all the excruciating details). Buddhism never seemed to come upon the idea that sociopolitical orders and power structures could be evaluated and chosen – it basically treats them as background to your individual path, and to the Sangha’s existence. Buddhism offers people and communities a transformative training that includes an important ethical component; but it doesn’t have a strong ethical system, in the Western sense, to preach to those who won’t actually go through the training. I don’t see this as a bad thing.

  14. “I’ve been reading this series with some puzzlement, as if it came from a somewhat parallel world. I’m a long-time practising Buddhist in southern Europe, where as far as I can tell neither protestantism nor what you call “consensus Buddhism” are much of a thing.”
    Here in Hafliax, Nova Scotia. “consensus Buddhism” isn’t much of a thing either. East Coasters are traditionalists. It seems to be a West Coast, California problem. It doesn’t hold everywhere.

  15. I’m a long-time practising Buddhist in southern Europe, where as far as I can tell neither protestantism nor what you call “consensus Buddhism” are much of a thing.

    That might not be a coincidence! The fundamental attitudes of Consensus Buddhism are Protestant Christian ones, so it probably only makes sense to people from Protestant countries.

    And, yes, it’s mainly an American phenomenon, although not exclusively so; and is probably more prevalent in California than elsewhere in America. Joseph Goldstein is one of its main architects, however, and his center is in Vermont. Many of the other key teachers, sanghas, and centers are also East Coast based. As a random example, Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, founded by John Daido Loori, who was one of the main inventors of “Buddhist ethics.”

    I generally agree with the rest of your comment. I’m not sure I understand where you think we have a disagreement (if you do)! My post from today might clarify the issues, particularly regarding the diversity of codes of conduct in Tibetan Buddhism.

  16. Oh! I forgot to say. This may be a misunderstanding:

    finally making it clear what it is that you’re reacting to with this whole series of posts.

    The argument between the Consensus and the secularists is not a main point of this series. I am only using it as evidence that the Consensus has lost its hegemonic political power, which means that there’s a new opening for alternatives.

  17. It is my hope that you say a lot about political strategy and tactics at some point because for me a Buddhism that is not a politcally engaged Buddhism does not really have very much value, for me anyways.

  18. David Chapman // “I like him and his writing,”

    This remark makes me wonder what aspects of his writing you like, because Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism looks pretty much close to what you call consensus Buddhism, and Protestant Buddhism.

  19. Yes, I agree about the content. I just find I like him as a guy. Maybe his science background has something to do with that? I don’t know. It’s not significant—I can dislike people I agree with, and like people I disagree with.

    Relatedly, I don’t have anything personal against any of the people whose ideas I criticize. I’ve never met Joseph Goldstein (for example), so I don’t know, but we might like each other a lot, and get on very well so long as we didn’t get emotional about arguing about Buddhism. He’s clearly an excellent teacher.

  20. “Assorted Thoughts On Polyamory” was a pure pleasure to read—thanks for the tip!

    Agreed that ethical thinking has to be phenomenological and that the Bodhisattva ideal is no help in this regard. The Buddhist writing I connect with most often is Trungpa’s—until it comes to the Bodhisattva chapters. Teachings that sounded so grounded and sharp one page ago just twist off into an unhelpful, nebulous fantasy of perfection.

    Very much looking forward to reading your page on “ethical responsiveness” and also “enjoyable usefulness.” How does one know when these pages go live? ;)

  21. The Buddhist writing I connect with most often is Trungpa’s—until it comes to the Bodhisattva chapters. Teachings that sounded so grounded and sharp one page ago just twist off into an unhelpful, nebulous fantasy of perfection.

    That’s interesting! I used to connect with his Bodhisattvayana teachings. They were really important to me 20 years ago. Now, not so much, for just the reason you say.

    Very much looking forward to reading your page on “ethical responsiveness” and also “enjoyable usefulness.”

    Me too!

    Don’t hold your breath :-(

    How does one know when these pages go live?

    You can get email notification of new pages by signing up at http://meaningness.com/email-subscriptions

    I think I need to make that more prominent!

  22. “I just find I like him as a guy. ”

    I see. By the way this post is so entertaining (satirical and humorous) to read and I had to laugh out a few times when reading it.

  23. By the way this post is so entertaining (satirical and humorous) to read and I had to laugh out a few times when reading it.

    Glad you liked it! Some people find my humor not-nice. I don’t want to offend anyone for the sake of offense, but humor points out contradictions especially clearly. Also, this is an inherently boring topic, and without some entertainment, no one would read it.

  24. I generally agree with the rest of your comment. I’m not sure I understand where you think we have a disagreement (if you do)!

    The argument between the Consensus and the secularists is not a main point of this series. I am only using it as evidence that the Consensus has lost its hegemonic political power, which means that there’s a new opening for alternatives.

    Thanks for the clarification; I guess the fact that I never felt the alleged hegemonical power of this Consensus probably explains my sense of weirdness at these posts. This also extends to arguments you make in other posts, for example I don’t feel like I live in a world where tantric Buddhism (i.e Vajrayana) has been banned, or even could be banned even if someone wanted to.

    I think I’m pretty close to your general views, which you’ve been nicely writing up in terms of “meaningness”, both in terms of what makes sense ultimately, and how one sets about to growing up to it.

    It’s in your assessment of how things are at the cultural level, and at the interface between the Western Buddhist sphere and the wider cultural world, that I don’t agree so much. You seem to write most of this blog, and this series in particular, as if “we” (educated, liberal Western Buddhists) were in the midst of a deep crisis of identity, on the verge of failing to have anything distinctive to offer to society at large. To support this point, you seem to be downplaying the levels of sane integration achieved by various strands of Buddhism in the West, including your own Aro lineage.

    I, on the other hand, mostly have the impression that the process of integration, with both sides (Western and Buddhist) learning from each other and being transformed by each other, is working pretty well. I also see it as something that will take a long time —generations, if not centuries— to settle into a stable form, which it probably will. And I think that native Asian teachers still have a lot to contribute to this process, including the newer generations who are growing up in a world already quite touched by (post)modernity.

    One of the things I most deeply appreciate about Buddhism is its ability to talk to people at many levels at once; a distinctive feature of a good Dharma teaching or book is that it has something of value to say to anyone (for example, to people at each of the development stages in Kegan’s map that you mention).

    To pick another point, in another post you argue that traditional Buddhist morality is medieval, with arguments like “Slavery was normal in most or all Buddhist cultures, throughout pre-modern history”. This, to me, doesn’t show that Buddhism supported slavery (or misoginy, or war), just that it failed to oppose it. And I don’t see any reason why I would expect my chosen spiritual tradition to have anticipated all the major ethical developments of the following 20-odd centuries. The way I see it, the fact that it gets mentioned in scripture doesn’t mean much — all sorts of things from the surrounding culture routinely get mentioned in scripture, vast as it is. The question is, is there a sustained thread within the living tradition of making a big point of a certain admonition? In these cases, there isn’t (AFAIK), so when Buddhism meets modern-day values and sensibilities and decides to align with them wrt such issues, I don’t see it as an about-face in Buddhist morality, but as a sign that Buddhism doesn’t intrinsically say much either way about these things.

    Compare, say, Śantideva’s famous anti-sex stance, where he compares a pillow favourably to a human lover. I think it would be highly hypocritical to claim continuity with the Buddhist tradition that Śantideva belonged to, and at the same time reject the basic idea that, at least at some level of one’s development, the overpowering quality of the sexual drive should be questioned and opposed if you are serious about the path.

    On the other hand, I’ve never seen traditional Buddhists source making sustained, comprehensive, impassioned arguments on the whos, wheres and hows of sexual morals. This leads me to think that, the traditional conservativeness of Asian societies notwithstanding, the occasional lists of specific characteristics of sexual misconduct are not a core Buddhist teaching. Which makes it altogether unsurprising that (for example) most Tibetan lamas are not demanding monogamy or heterosexuality of their students. (And I don’t think this is just because the students wouldn’t take it — some contemporary Hindu groups do make such demands, and still find students). So I think it’s entirely legitimate to read the third lay vow as something as general as “be careful and mindful in your sexual conduct; it’s all too easy to hurt others or create problems through sex”.

    Maybe the simplest summary of where I disagree with the views you’ve been expressing so far would be that I believe that most, if not all of kind of Buddhism you are trying to build or unearth is already right there, readily available in a reasonable sane format, in the existing Buddhist groups in the West — or at least in the part of the Western Tibetan Buddhist world that I’ve had contact with, stretching all the way between Spain and France to Dharamsala, Boudha and Bir.

  25. dharma yodel

    Thank you for the clarification. You raise several interesting points; I think I’ll reply only to your final, summary paragraph. I find it as puzzling as you find my writing, for the same reason!

    the kind of Buddhism you are trying to build or unearth is already right there, readily available in a reasonable sane format, in the existing Buddhist groups in the West

    Could you be specific about which Buddhist groups you have in mind?

    In the US and UK, so far as I am aware, Buddhist tantra is almost entirely unavailable. Tibetan Buddhism is easily available everywhere—but, of course, most of Tibetan Buddhism is not tantric. Most Tibetan lamas teaching in the US and UK don’t make tantra meaningfully available to Western students. If they teach it at all, you have to go through ngondro first, which most Westerners experience as a vast and pointless waste of time. Then what you get as “tantra” is textual sadhana recitation, which most Westerners experience as another vast and pointless waste of time. Both of those are served only with vast dollops of Tibetan culture, which is irrelevant, alien, and off-putting for most Westerners.

    Some Western students, who are highly motivated, intelligent, and have an affinity for Tibetanness, can struggle through that. But that is rare, as far as I can tell. I know plenty of people who have tried to get access to Tantra in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has dozens of Tibetan centers, and have failed, despite reasonably diligent efforts.

    There are a handful of teachers who offer a more modern presentation, and who explain what tantra is actually about, rather than just giving a sadhana empowerment. But they are few indeed, and none of them are as modern as I am suggesting. I made a list here; are there others I should add to it?

  26. “But… what is the important rest of Buddhism?

    That’s a genuinely difficult, important question.”

    Difficult? It looks perfectly simple from here. You have picked out an unimportant aspect of the practice and asked what else is there of importance. This is very odd.

    “More traditional Buddhists have a different response, that Buddhism is about enlightenment, the total and permanent end of all suffering, next to which stress reduction is trivial. This is true to tradition; but not, in my opinion, realistic.”

    And you say that you are a Buddhist? What sort of Buddhist says something like this? I wonder why you say ‘true to tradition’ and not just ‘true’.

    If you are a Buddhist why do you spend so much time trying to knock it down?

  27. Different people have different ideas about what is important in Buddhism. This has always been true. You are entitled to your opinion, but insisting that everyone else share it is a non-starter. (Well, Buddhists have also been doing that for a couple thousand years, but short of genocide it has never worked.)

    You have picked out an unimportant aspect of the practice [i.e., ethics]…

    I didn’t; the leaders of the Consensus did. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they were forced by popular demand to make it the second major component of their religion (after meditation).

    What sort of Buddhist says something like this?

    Many modern Buddhists say things like this. And have done since Mongkut started modernizing Buddhism in 1851.

    I wonder why you say ‘true to tradition’ and not just ‘true’.

    Because it is “not, in my opinion, realistic.”

    If you are a Buddhist why do you spend so much time trying to knock it down?

    I try to knock down wrong ideas about Buddhism so we can make Buddhisms that work better.

  28. You are going to make Buddhism work better? What is with Americans. Please leave it alone. You do not appear to understand it. I find your approach irresponsible. But no need to argue. I’ll stay away.

  29. Thank you for an interesting article. I’m somewhat ambivalent about mindfulness. I’ve heard of circumstances – particularly healthcare – where it seems to be helpful. Others, particularly in the business world, sometimes seem to be trying to mask the stress of work by giving people a means of coping – rather than eliminating the cause.

    Regarding mindfulness and Buddhism, I would like to know more about what mindfulness does, in terms of the experience of someone who practices it. I would particularly like to hear of the experiences of people who have practices mindfulness and never encountered Buddhism.

    On the whole though, if mindfulness practice appears to be helping people in their lives, that would sound like a good thing.

  30. Rather than see the mindfulness movement as somehow part of a crisis for Consensus Buddhism – I’d be more inclined to see it as a triumph and vindication. The cultural innovation from Mahasi Sayadaw to (say) Joseph Goldstein is as significant as is the second step from Joseph Goldstein to MBSR, there is a very clear genealogical progression.
    MBSR/MBCT/MSC type 8 week courses would simply not have happened without ‘Consensus Buddhists’ (if we have to use this term) which in turn would not have happened without the Asian mindfulness movement/vipassana revival of the 1870s onwards.
    From what I see, people like Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Stephen Batchelor, Christopher Titmuss are on the whole delighted to see mindfulness flourish – in a way of course that would have been totally unimaginable in the late 60s or early 1970s. Furthermore, their careers have flourished along with the exponential growth & broader cultural awareness of mindfulness.
    Also, of course the line between MBSR type approaches and say IMS/Gaia House type approaches has always been blurry and prone to a two way osmosis. So a large growth in people sitting MBSR type courses will translate into larger numbers of would-be retreatants wanting to sit courses at centres like Spirit Rock, IMS, Gaia House etc.

    The issue I suspect lies with the terminology ‘Consensus Buddhism’ – which lets face it is a bit of a problematic straw man exaggeration from the get-go… (even if we are to limit it to the USA and gloss over the very significant disagreements and divergences between said pioneers.)

    Common sense and even a cursory view of mindfulness practices in contemporary culture would suggest that there is plenty of room for both IMS/Gaia House type approaches AND MBSR/MSC type approaches.
    Put simply, some people will want to do an 8 week MBSR course to better cope with the stresses of a busy work place or a health condition – others might well want to sit longer residential silent retreats, delve into ethical implications of mindfulness & loving kindness etc.
    Some start with MBSR and then go on to sit silent retreats… others might want to sit an MSC course having had decades of retreat practice. These mindfulness ‘modalities’ are not fixed, nor are the yogis participating in them – furthermore one size does not fit all… nor should it.

    I’m pretty dubious that tantric Buddhism is ever going to amount to 5% of what the mindfulness movement currently in, the simple reason being that we don’t live in a tantric or shamanic society… we live in (broadly) a psychotherapeutic one.
    Where western culture IS making MEANINGFUL inroads into the shamanic side, is in for example the growing popularity of ayahausca and other ceremonial plant medicines.
    I’m bound to ask… Why would anyone want to try to reconstruct tantric Buddhism in a totally different western culture when much better results (say) can be had combining mindfulness/metta etc & ayahuasca? The former seems to me well and truly barking up the wrong tree… the latter an exciting psycho-spiritual frontier via a cross-pollination of the tried and tested.

  31. Will, thanks for an interesting comment!

    Rather than see the mindfulness movement as somehow part of a crisis for Consensus Buddhism – I’d be more inclined to see it as a triumph and vindication.

    Both, I think! And I think the Consensus leaders see it both ways, too. As I said at the beginning of the post:

    Many Buddhists have strong mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that so many more people are experiencing the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation. On the other hand, “mindfulness” seems like weaksauce kitsch; it’s missing most of what’s important about Buddhism. There’s a worry that if Buddhism is “unbundled,” with its most attractive part available separately, it will disintegrate, and critical aspects of the whole will be lost.

    That worry is clearly expressed in the articles critical of secular mindfulness written by Consensus leaders.

    we don’t live in a tantric or shamanic society… we live in (broadly) a psychotherapeutic one

    I think some anthropologists would say that psychotherapy is a form of shamanism.

    Tantra has shamanistic aspects, but “shamanism” mostly doesn’t capture what it’s about.

    Why would anyone want to try to reconstruct tantric Buddhism in a totally different western culture when much better results (say) can be had combining mindfulness/metta etc & ayahuasca?

    Well, if much better results for the same goal could be had, then it would be hard to disagree!

    Tantra’s goals are quite different from those of “mindfulness/metta etc.” I don’t know much about ayahusca culture, but I’m pretty sure its goals are also quite different. So this is like saying “why go skiing when much better results can be obtained by balancing your checkbook while looking at cat pictures on Facebook?”

  32. Hi David,

    They way we westerners seem to approach the modalities of mindfulness/metta etc and ayahuasca I’d say the goal (broadly speaking) is psycho-spiritual growth and healing – together with consequent implications for both inner and outer life. For some of course this might start with a relatively modest (perhaps?) mundane aim of (say) emotional or stress management – work, illness etc.. the stuff of life.
    I don’t know what the goals of some kind of meaningful western tantric practice would be? Or indeed if they would be different….and as I mentioned earlier, with the best will in the world I can’t really see it getting off the ground anyhow. Perhaps you’ll one day convince me otherwise!!
    In short, regardless of (rather abstract theoretical) “goals” – lets face it, on a practical level many more people are going to be drawn to mindfulness (secular or not) than Buddhist neo-tantra… and if you really want thunderbolt progress and visionary experiences then combine ongoing practice with judicious use of ayahuasca.

    In pre-modern contexts – meditation, tantra, yoga, shamanism etc tended to be the preserve of a narrow band of the talented. I’ve yet to hear of a western yogi of the caliber of Dipa Ma or Neem Karoli Baba.. and to be honest don’t expect to. David Chapman can’t be with us today… he’s just achieved rainbow body… really? Mainstream mindfulness on the other hand is well within the reach of most of us.

    “I think some anthropologists would say that psychotherapy is a form of shamanism.”

    They might… this does not a shamanic society make though. Truth is we don’t live in a shamanic or tantric society. Granted, quietly growing (and in my view excellent) therapies like Family Constellations draw on both the shamanic and psychotherapeutic within a framework thats meaningful and understandable for us in contemporary modern society.

    PS I dont think MBSR type mindfulness will ‘unbundle’ what places like IMS or Gaia House have to offer… it just broadens the funnel for people to get interested in the first place. And as mentioned, by broadening the funnel it benefits IMS and Gaia House in attracting greater numbers, profile etc. MBSR/MBCT is a basic form of contemplative practice originally growing out of a clinical setting… a deeper engagement with mindfulness and associated contemplative practices is always there for those that want it… together with the ethical components etc. Both approaches to mindfulness are welcome and indeed complimentary as far as I can see.

    PPS I’ve never seen the angst about teaching MBSR type mindfulness to soldiers. If they are more calm and less likely to panic under pressure and shoot innocent civilians then thats a good thing, if returning men are more able to deal with battle trauma (and less likely to hit the bottle and/or their wives & girlfriends, or take their own lives etc) then thats also good thing… in these cases the alleviation of human suffering is a good (and ethical!) thing.
    As to wether we should be sending young men over to places like Iraq, Afghanistan etc then thats another debate for us all to have. But unless I’m very much mistaken, angst over who should get (or not get) an 8 week mindfulness courses is not going to change global geo-politics and Western foreign policy anytime soon. Keep things practical I say.

  33. “Complete celibacy was required even in the modern lay meditation systems the Consensus founders learned in Thailand in the 1970s.”

    This isn’t quite true either. Celibacy is expected of the sanga say in an Ajahn Cha monastery – or indeed on a Vipassana retreat in the Goenka or Mahasi tradition – as with at Spirit Rock or IMS today for that matter. That said, for lay people having sex after taking part in a vipassana retreat has never been forbidden either in Asia or the West.
    Of course, celibacy on an MBSR course today would not make sense as its neither a monastic nor retreat setting and is very much geared towards providing guidance very much within the context of daily life.

  34. for lay people having sex after taking part in a vipassana retreat has never been forbidden either in Asia or the West.

    It was not forbidden; teachers didn’t have the power to do that. It was strongly discouraged by many teachers in the mid-20th-century, who stated forcefully and clearly that you aren’t going to get anywhere with vipassana if you have feelings of lust (much less if you act on them).

  35. “who stated forcefully and clearly that you aren’t going to get anywhere with vipassana if you have feelings of lust (much less if you act on them).”

    My understanding is that vipassana with the aim of manga/phala (i.e. path attainments) would involve loosening and eventual cutting through of fetters (samyojana). The first listed being sensual lust (karma-raga). So sexual lust would diminish and then eventually disappear on its own with more advanced practice. Of course, most people taking part in retreats would not be at the stage of cutting through fetters. So whilst the likes of Dipa Ma or Goenka might be very encouraged to see a lay person embrace celibacy (as a sign of vipassana progress) I never read of them strongly discouraging marital sex either. Sensual desire is not attenuated until Sakadagami and not uprooted entirely until Anagami stages of enlightenment (where Dipa Ma and Mahasi Sayadaw were reputed to be).
    Of course, diet is another part of it – the kind of intermittent fasting found in Theravada monasteries and vipassana retreats can greatly decrease sexual desire on its own – this though is not the same as insight progress and cutting through fetters. I remember the Dalai Lama being asked by a journalist if he struggled with sexual desire and he laughed pointing to his groin and saying
    “It does not work, Buddhist diet!” – On a personal note, I’ve found even fasting after 6pm can make a significant difference in this department. I remember reading about the much loved vipassana teacher Anagarika Mundindra and him pointing out the difference between cultures “If someone in India looses their sex drive they thank God, in America they take blue pills!”

  36. P.S. Reading the biography of Dipa Ma you’ll see that she had a sister Hema Barua who was also very advanced in vipassana. Hema had about 4-5 kids and Dipa Ma had daughter Dipa. All of the children achieved at least first-path (sotapanna) during their school holidays as teens in Burma under Anagarika Munindra and Mahasi Sayadaw. Furthermore, all the girls (as well as Hema and Dipa Ma) but not the 2 boys – learnt supernormal powers and perceptual states (siddhis) with Mahasi Sayadaw’s enthusiastic encouragement. Dipa Ma then returned to India where Dipa eventually got married and had a son… Hema became a grand-mother too.
    So here we have biographical reports of serious progress with vipassana combined with normal marital life. The impression I get reading about Dipa Ma and indeed the likes of Mother Sayamagyi (U Ba Khin’s successor in Burma)… they would encourage western students to be serious about their practice but not to become alienated from normal life or family life… this itself would be another lesson for western students of the 1960s and 70s who could end up getting rather too austere.

  37. I do not understand the debate. Nearly all of it seems to arise from a process of muddling up the doctrine in a mess of half-understandings. The article is very good but I wonder if it would make any sense outside of the US.

    Buddhist ethics is one with its ontology and epistemology, and the package stands or falls as a complete philosophical system. If we cannot see how its ethics works this is not the fault of Buddhism. A Buddhist cannot even say that murder is a breach of ethics without knowing the motivation and circumstances. No use asking a Buddhist for a list of moral do’s and do nots when it comes to our actions. It would all depend, as the Gita indicates, and as does the story that in a previous life the Buddha committed murder for sound ethical reasons, on the context. It seems to me that this would seem to be an unnecessary debate were it not for the proliferation of idiosyncratic sub-cults in the US. I have no idea what ‘consensus’ Buddhism is and wonder why I should care.

    As for the idea that Buddhism has no ethics, this is surely so daft that it is laughable. What it does not have have is a list of commandments. What it does have is a way of knowing how we should behave. In one respect Buddhism shares its ethical scheme with Islam, in that the pursuit of knowledge is seen as the beginning and end of any investigation of ethics. Without knowledge we are likely to end up in the same confusion as all the other people who don’t have any but like to speculate. Speculation is fun but it would not be the task. The task would be to discover the truth of our situation and thus know the most appropriate way to behave. Or, so it seems to me…

  38. I don’t follow contemporary trends in Buddhism closely, but have read enough to understand about what you are saying about Consensus Buddhism and secular mindfulness. In my experience, however, there is a large component of the population for whom learning mindfulness meditation in a secular context is a gateway to adoption of commitments to Mahayana ideals, namely public school teachers and social workers.

    Teachers and social workers confront a steady stream of significant problems that they have limited resources to actually solve, and their clients/students often live in situations that the worker would simply label as morally degenerate if they were judging from their own prejudices. On the other hand they have significant amounts of training teaching them the value of not trying to completely reprogram the client in order to improve their life circumstances. Moreover, they have no choice whatsoever about who their clients or students are.

    For professionals in this situation, a Mahayana practice involving meditation, the identity of emptiness and compassion, bodhisattva vows, and an awareness of the Buddha’s dharmakaya provides for a more relaxed, open approach to their work. While compassion for all sentient beings may be impossible, compassion for a finite number of randomly assigned sentient beings is a necessary part of their job. Emptiness = compassion also frees them from the punishing experience of empathy toward really terrible situations, by giving them a distanced mode of caring.

    In concrete terms, I’ve known a number of people who start out interested in mindfulness meditation either as a tool for clients, or as stress relief for themselves, who then start interacting with Zen groups, which are pretty much everywhere now. Zen exposes them to the sort of Mahayana teachings I’ve described above, and they end up talking about bodhisattva vows and quoting Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron all the time.

    My impression is that this “Social Worker Mahayana” has some significant growth potential, and would continue to grow as a form of religious commitment, even if secular mindfulness were to fall out of fashion.

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