Consensus Buddhism: what’s left

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.]

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

9 thoughts on “Consensus Buddhism: what’s left”

  1. One thing that I don’t remember you touching upon: it seemed to me that the Consensus Buddhism was also undermined by waves that the Daniel Ingram “hardcore” movement made a few years ago.

  2. Greg — I think I’m too close to the subject matter to write a history of the decline and fall of Consensus Buddhism. That would be a valuable and interesting topic to research and understand and present. Maybe you would like to take on that project?

    The Consensus, rhetorically, defined itself as “modern, Western Buddhism,” against “traditional Buddhism,” which meant the Asian nationalist export products. It positioned itself as the only alternative to those, by definition. If you did modern Buddhism, you were part of the Consensus. (It was a big friendly family that included everyone with a modern approach.) But you had to do it their way, or you were a Bad Consensus Buddhist. There was intense social and memetic pressure to both to remain part of the Consensus and to conform to it.

    I tentatively date the beginning of the end to 2005, when Brad Warner published Hardcore Zen. Apparently it’s a complete coincidence that Daniel Ingram also used the word “Hardcore” in his title a little later, and they both feel that their approaches are quite different and shouldn’t be lumped.

    However, both presented coherent mainstream modernist alternatives to the Consensus, and there hadn’t been any of those at all since about 1990. Once people saw that alternatives were possible, the thought-space hegemony started to crack.

    People for whom the Consensus would be attractive would not have been attracted to “hardcore,” in which case they may not have really been in competition. So maybe it’s not that the Consensus was undermined itself in terms of its operation, but that people realized other modern approaches to Buddhism are possible.

    Maybe, too, the use of “hardcore” is not a coincidence, in that both teachers are from Gen X, whereas the Consensus is a Boomer creation. I do have a series of posts planned about generational issues in American Buddhism. One of the main questions is “why did Gen X Buddhism happen so late, and so weakly?” The Boomers created Consensus Buddhism in the 70s and 80s, when they were in their 30s. Why didn’t Gen X create a distinctive Buddhism in the 90s?

    Tentatively, I think the problem was that Gen X Buddhists tacitly accepted the bogus traditional-vs-modern dichotomy, which left no room for anything new.

    I would guess — and here’s one place some historical research would be useful — that this was exploded by internet forums, as Gen X Buddhists started to realize that it was not just “me” that didn’t like either brand, but that “lots of us” felt the same way.

    Gen X Buddhism is pretty muted, though, and hasn’t gone beyond minor stylistic differences to distinctive content. I fear that it may be too late for Gen X to innovate significantly now. Hopes for the future of American Buddhism probably ride on the Millenials—or even the next generation.

  3. I finding your posts on this subject really interesting. I’d heard vague connections between theosophy and buddhism, but didn’t think it was of any significance because I assumed probably like many others that there was a solid monastic meditation tradition in East Asia, and that theosophy was just going to use it to add respectability or authority.
    I’d thought theosophy was largely a project to create an artificial global religion coming from the upper classes of Europe and America, but these strains of buddhism you describe seem to be subsumed into that effort, even if inadvertently.

  4. David,

    Are you familiar with Dharma Punx/ Against the Stream. It’s a community founded by Noah Levine, that seems to very intentionally be a Gen X Buddhism. Brad Warner participates.

  5. Thanks, I know only a little about it. What makes it distinctively Gen X? How does it differ from Boomer Buddhism? (I couldn’t see much, but I took only a quick look.)

  6. As for the whole “Consensus Buddhism” thing, I enjoy reading this blog series, but I keep wondering why our experiences are so extremely different. It feels as if you’re writing from an alternative universe.

    When I got interested in Buddhism a few years ago, I didn’t know much, so I randomly came accross different Buddhist groups that were available near the places I lived. This way I got to know several communities: Triratna, SN Goenka’s vipassana courses and a relatively traditional Theravada group lead by a Norwegian monk. I found no traces of anything that would fit in the “consensus Buddhism” definition. When I tried to read more about Buddhism on the net, the most popular website with the Pali Canon (accesstoinsight.org) contained articles by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and the traditional Canadian monk Yuttadhammo was the top answerer on the most popular Buddhist Q&A site (buddhism.stackexchange.org) – again, no signs of the “consensus”. And even when I took a look at the 1980 book “Zen-Dawn in the West”, written by the influential American Zen master Philip Kapleau, I hardly found anything that resembles the “consensus”: he clearly differentiated Buddhist meditation from psychotherapy, spoke of rebirth and boddhisattvas as actual things, not mythology that “you aren’t expected to believe in”, and about the path towards no-self, not about “self-realisation and being one with the universe”.

    So I see no traces of the supposed “monopoly”, which wanted to “supress” other branches of Buddhism, not only now, but even in the past. And Triratna and Goenka centres I mentioned before aren’t new in the West either, they have been here for many years, so it isn’t some recent development.

  7. Consensus Buddhism is mainly confined to the United States (although it does have tentacles elsewhere). None of the groups you mention are Consensus.

    It was invented in the 1980s, so Kapleau pre-dates it.

    Many people who comment on this blog have said that they agree that the Consensus is dominant in the US.

  8. I’d like to see a post about the “Dark Night of the Soul” in modern vipassana. I have noticed that my practice involves similar periods, but it doesn’t have to be a huge problem. I find St. John a good read, but I have a Catholic background. It does seem strange to import a metaphor from a completely different tradition to explain something ostensibly “Buddhist”. I’ve emailed some people about this, and I think it has to do with the fundamental difference between Buddhist and Christian spiritual practices:

    The Christian aims to experience knowledge of a personal deity; no matter how vast and incomprehensible it is, there is a personality to be communed with ( although St. John’s “todo y nada” is interesting in this context. He wasn’t exactly a “regular Joe Christian”). Buddhists usually mention the cessation of “Self” and illusion as the goal, or at least finding a different relationship to our identities and the world. I imagine that anyone raised in Christianity who attempts the most powerful vipassana methods will be in for some dark nights if they haven’t thoroughly examined what they are looking for ( and isn’t that interesting, that perhaps such a period involves not only the deconstruction of the meditator’s self identity and expectation, but also the “death” of the hope for any salvation from a transcendent figure ? )

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