When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism, four years ago, I pointed to signs that it was in crisis and on its way out. Now, its failed attempt to mount a coherent political response to secular mindfulness shows it’s over. Of course, the teachers are still teaching and the centers are still open; but as a cultural force, it’s spent.
This means specifically that it is no longer capable of suppressing modern Tantric Buddhism—one of my main motivations for writing about it. (There’s many other obstacles to that—but Consensus hostility had been the most daunting, and that’s no longer significant.)
So I’m probably done writing about Consensus Buddhism. There’s some loose ends, though.
There are two major topics left unwritten in my outline for the Consensus Buddhism series: its history, and its theory of meditation. There’s also two posts left in the “Buddhist ethics” series: on learning kindness, and on the emptiness and form of ethics.
A plea for oral history
My overall approach in this blog has been historical. The Buddhisms we have today simply do not make sense in their own terms. We can only understand them in terms of the processes that led to them. Every generation constructs new Buddhisms to address the problems of meaningness it faces—and those problems are different, to some extent, in every generation. However, every generation builds its Buddhisms in, among, and on the ruins of the previous one. The result is always somewhat incoherent, as bits of older Buddhisms, addressing problems that no longer exist, are retained without understanding, and/or partially adapted to new conditions.
Future Buddhisms will inevitably be influenced by the Consensus—even though it addressed problems which no longer exist, and it does not address our current problems of meaningness. A thorough historical understanding of the Consensus would help avoid taking its assumptions for granted. Knowing in detail what its creators were trying to do, how they went about doing it, what their influences were, how they organized socially and politically, what mistakes they recognized, how they corrected course mid-stream—this would be valuable information to preserve after they are gone.
I had planned to write about this, but now don’t expect to. I have too many other writing projects, and this is not the highest priority.
But also, I found it somewhat difficult to get answers. It isn’t much of an academic field—yet—and the participants were too busy doing to explain themselves. Recently, many Consensus leaders have written autobiographies, which are the best historical sources. I hope there will be more.
It would also be hugely valuable to collect oral histories of American Buddhism, 1970-2000, from the mouths of the people most involved. The time to do this is now—some are already dead, and many others will be lost over the next ten years.
Done well, this could stand as a major, landmark study in both Buddhist Studies and American social history. (I’m trying to motivate ambitious graduate students and assistant professors here!)
Close students of particular teachers may also want to do this, non-academically, for the teacher’s benefit and yours, as well as future generations. Record your teacher talking about their reasons for going East, their experiences there with Asian teachers and with fellow students, the challenges of starting to teach Buddhism in the West, what adaptations had to be made and why, their relationships with other Western teachers, their advice and feelings about teaching, and their thoughts about how Buddhism may develop in the future. I suspect you will find this fascinating; and you (or younger students) will be glad to listen again when they are gone.
Monism in mindfulness meditation
Robert Sharf, Thanissaro Bikkhu, and David McMahan have suggested that the Consensus theory of meditation draws as much or more from German Romantic Idealism (European monism) than from traditional Buddhism. I suspect this is important, and I would like to present it in language accessible to the general Western Buddhist public.
However, some key pieces of the story are missing. It needs to be worked out in much more detail before a watertight case can be made. Some research questions I’m particularly interested in:
- How does the theory influence the practice? What aspects of current meditation practice are particularly colored by monism? How would mainstream meditation instruction change if monist delusions were removed?
- Does the dangerously wrong metaphysics lead to bad practical results? Particularly, is the “Dark Night of the Soul” nightmare some modern vipassana meditators experience a consequence of monist distortions? (I suspect so.)
- How, in more historical detail, did Western monism influence meditation? Especially, to what extent were the inventors of Theravada meditation influenced? (We know the answer for Zen: the influence was massive and freely acknowledged, as Sharf has related. We also know the answer for Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka: he was a Theosophist. But what about the Thai and Burmese innovators?)
- Even more intriguing to me: was there European intellectual influence on the Tibetan Rimé movement in the 1800s?
I intend to resist pursuing these issues. However, I plan to address several closely-related topics in the monism chapter of the Meaningness book.
What’s left of Buddhist ethics
The outline for my “Buddhist ethics” series includes two pages that I haven’t completed. One elaborates on the idea, at the end of my last post, that Vajrayana’s specific understanding of the inseparability of emptiness and form may be useful in contemporary ethics. The other is titled “Learning how to be kind.”
Unfortunately, I have run out of time. They will need at least an uninterrupted full-time week to finish. I’m not sure when I will get that, or whether they will seem the most important topics to write about when I do. Sorry about that!
[Update: “Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics” is complete and published a month later. I’ve tabled “Learning how to be kind” for the indefinite future; it needs serious thought, not just writing.]