Two podcasts: Rebuilding the ruined city of Buddhism

Buddhist ruins at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, courtesy Christoph Rooms

Two new Buddhist Geeks podcasts with Vincent Horn and me, in conversation:

This will be the first in a series of Geeks podcasts on Buddhist ethics, with a variety of guests.

I described that framework in “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” and its relevance in “Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach.”

Kegan’s work has significantly influenced Vince as well as me, so I think our conversation went quite deep. How do we build social support for personal and cultural development beyond dogmatic institutions, without reverting to pre-rational tribalism? Can Buddhism help?

I recently posted “A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse,” covering many of the same issues, particularly for a STEM-educated audience, in a non-Buddhist framework.

The action is now elsewhere

For the next year or so, I expect to post all my writing over on meaningness.com, and this site will be dormant. You may want to subscribe email notifications of new posts over there. Having subscribed to this blog won’t get you those. (There is also an RSS feed if you use that.)

I’m working there on a cultural, social, and psychological history of the past few decades. The facts of that history are familiar to anyone who lived through it. However, I’m looking at them in an unusual way, influenced by Vajrayana Buddhism. My hope is that this perspective may suggest ways to resolve some current moral and political difficulties.

That work grew out of the question “Is Buddhism just for Baby Boomers?”, which I’ve been puzzling over for most of a decade. Why is Buddhism less attractive to the Western X and Millennial generations? I believe it’s because the natural cultural expression of Gen X and Millennials would be quite different from Boomer-dominated “Consensus Buddhism.” Once the wider cultural history is written, I plan to return to this site to apply the framework to Western Buddhism, and its generation gaps.

The “Long Live” podcast ends with the question: what would a “fluid” Buddhism be like? I hope the Vajrayana-inflected analysis of general contemporary culture can help answer that.

Advanced secular meditation

Based on years of experience teaching and practicing in diverse Buddhist systems, Vincent and Emily Horn are developing new formats for presenting meditation. I’m tentatively thinking of their work as “advanced secular meditation”—although that’s not quite the way they describe it!

The minimalist methods of the mindfulness movement have benefitted millions. Its secular approach makes meditation accessible for people who would not consider Buddhism. For most, it may be enough. Yet, many others want to go deeper—but may still balk at Buddhism. I see a need for a secular path that takes meditators much further into the mountainous topography of awareness.

Vince and Emily have developed a five-fold path1 of “mind training for the digital age,” which they’ve begun presenting at meditate.io. So far, there is a free email-based course, including video and audio. They are planning much more.

They are also teaching three of the five styles of meditation at a retreat this July 11th-18th. In addition to the five-fold approach, they will incorporate social meditation practice (a recent innovation) and contemplative technology.


  1. Their five styles of meditation seem to me to correspond neatly to the five Buddha Families, or elements of traditional Vajrayana. This may be coincidental or misleading, however! 
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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

18 thoughts on “Two podcasts: Rebuilding the ruined city of Buddhism”

  1. In my own experience, meditation within a wholly secular context just never worked very well. However, in recent years, due to experiences that didn’t fit my narrow paradigm I shifted to a more open minded point of view (chaos magick, basically), and as part of that, I began to make I offerings to my ancestors and local spirits. Since I started that practice, it has literally transformed my life, and actually has made a huge difference in the stability of my meditation practice. I would hypothesize that a practice that combines meditations and offerings is far more powerful than either practice taken on its own.

    Over time I have shifted to a quasi-animist point of view, where I make no claims about the ontological status of beings, but simply assume that I can work with them as real, in the same way that humans have for thousands of years. It seems that making offerings is a universal practice that simply works. I fear that this is one of the bits that might be seen as too “religious” and will get dumped when meditation is taught in a secular context. I certainly never considered the idea of making offerings when I was looking at things from a typical materialist point of view.

    Yet, there is no necessary reason that offerings can’t be part of a secular practice. There is no need to bring in any metaphysical baggage to make offerings, when you realize that through your DNA, blood, and bones, you are literally connected to your ancestors, to the many life forms that inhabit the earth, and to the earth itself.

  2. Yaaaay, thank you to both you and Vince for these podcasts. Glad to see this conversation continuing!

    In terms of what’s left of Buddhism in the U.S. once you strip away boomer ethics—I would say that teachings on non-duality are still quite transformative for many people. When I talk to non-Buddhist practitioners about Buddhist philosophy, those teachings elicit the most surprise and curiosity. People are so used to good vs. evil / pleasure vs. pain / winning vs. losing, take it so for granted in our culture, that to suggest that there is something else to do besides try to permanently be good or feel better seems pretty wild. There are still many people who have never considered it.

  3. It seems that making offerings is a universal practice that simply works. I fear that this is one of the bits that might be seen as too “religious” and will get dumped when meditation is taught in a secular context.

    FWIW, offerings were a part of Shambhala Training at the time when it was explicitly secular and non-Buddhist. I agree that it’s a valuable practice, and need not drag dubious metaphysics along with it.

    to suggest that there is something else to do besides try to permanently be good or feel better seems pretty wild.

    Good point!

  4. You might be interested in learning a bit more about how Shambhala Training has developed since you last interacted with it. It’s gotten a lot of criticism from some folks because it integrates a bit more Buddhist philosophy (two truths, compassion, suffering, three prajnas) but I would still say that the Shambhala Training path is secular. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to do it, and there are lots of people who are either not interested in religion, or who have firm religious commitments elsewhere.

    The bigger change has been that the whole Vajrayana path in the Shambhala community has been reformulated around the Shambhala teachings (which used to be offered in the context of the Shambhala training curriculum). I think more than Shambhala Training becoming more buddhist it’s that the buddhist offerings within the community have become much more shambhala-y.

  5. That is interesting—particularly the bit about “the whole Vajrayana path has been reformulated around the Shambhala teachings”! Is there anything available on the public web about this?

  6. I’m not sure something exists in a complete form that’s written for an outside audience. Let me try to sketch things out.. This has all happened bit by bit over the last 15 years, but when I think about it all together it is a really amazing transformation.

    Historically, the Shambhala path started with Shambhala training programs, then led into a traditional mahayana sutra program, then into Vajrayana transmission a kagyu ngondro and then Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara practice. There was also a Shambhala tantric practice called the Werma sadhana. But generally two branches of practice, one which was traditional Tibetan buddhist and one that was based around the Shambhala terma.

    Around 2001, the community began focusing on the Werma sadhana as its main practice, and this path was developed quite a lot. For instance there’s a ngondro and abisheika for the Werma sadhana which are offered regularly (https://www.shambhalamedia.org/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=LSE230). The kagyu ngondro is still done, but rarely.

    The second major development has been the Shambhala dzogchen teachings, which are taught at a set of group retreats called Scorpion Seal Assemblies. Which has been the main focus of most advanced tantric practitioners in the community. There’s a good writeup about one of the first of these assemblies here: http://shambhalatimes.org/2009/07/02/scorpion-seal-opens/

    The last big change to date was the Shambhala Sadhana practice. This is basically the culmination of the non-buddhist path within our community, It’s the core teachings of Shambhala training, but expressed in sadhana form, and is offered at a retreat called Enlightened Society Assembly.

    All of this has been a huge change to the way Shambhala centers and practitioners operate, and so has caused a lot of difficulty, especially for people who were more interested in traditional Tibetan approaches.

  7. I’ll add a little elaboration to that.

    I joined the Shambhala community in 2000. At that time there were two paths that were just starting to blend. As Gordon noted, they were 1) Shambhala Training -> Werma Sadhana, and 2) Karma Kagyu ngondro -> Vajrayogini & Chakrasamvara, with Nyingma practices available on a more irregular basis.

    After 2004 or 2005 the Karma Kagyu path was discontinued for new students. Since then the Karma Kagyu tradition has been pretty much completely abandoned except by older students who were grandfathered in and are particularly motivated to persist. In 2008 there was a desultory effort made to welcome the 17th Karmapa on his first USA visit. At my center there was an embarrassed, last-minute, unsanctioned effort to squeeze his picture up on the shrine room wall temporarily before he spoke. It came down right after he left, and subsequent visits seem to have been completely ignored. To my knowledge no new students have embarked on the Karma Kagyu vajrayana path in over ten years. It would be challenging to revive at this point given the loss of continuity and communal institutional knowledge even if there was any desire by SMR to do so, which there clearly isn’t.

    I was a little surprised recently to read public comments by Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche criticizing Sakyong Mipham for discarding the Karma Kagyu tradition.

    https://www.chronicleproject.com/stories_576.html

    Anyone who knows anything about Tibetan Buddhism knows how far along something needs to go before a lama is willing to criticize another lama in clear terms, in public, by name.

    I can only surmise the reasons behind this shift. I suspect the main reason is that because the Karma Kagyu is so stratified and hierarchical (not to mention in severe turmoil the last twenty years), and SMR has no place in that hierarchy, it was much easier and more appealing for him to sidestep it completely and be King and Pope of his own world where he answers to no one. That said, having two distinct, complete lineages and practice paths under one roof (or three or four or five, depending on how you want to factor the Nyingma traditions in) was always someone unwieldy and confused.

    For these and a number of other reasons I’ve eased out of the community over the last several years, so I have much less direct experience with the latest developments as I once did. But, contrary to a lot of criticism I read on the internet, Shambhala Training, as Gordon indicated, isn’t much different than it always was. CTR never opened the Werma sadhana to non-Buddhists. It is the “Buddhism” side that has become unrecognizable.

  8. Thanks for this David, I have just stumbled across your blog and site, most interesting. Many millennials I know are into the Western Mystery Tradition. Go figure.

  9. Glad you like it!

    Many millennials I know are into the Western Mystery Tradition

    Yes, I’ve become increasingly aware of this recently. It’s a bit odd. I’d like to understand better what is drawing people to it.

    It was considered fusty old-people-stuff and a dead end in the 1970s. Interesting just as a cultural revival!

    But the specific reasons for reviving it would be interesting to know.

  10. 1970s inspired doom metal music has also had increasing popularity with heavy metal orientated millennials (like myself). Perhaps there is some correlation?

    In Finland, occult subject have been discussed more openly in the media recently. There was also a very popular history of all kinds of weird local occult enthusiast persons published last year (http://like.fi/kirjat/valonkantajat/, “Light Bringers” in English). This is particularly weird shift as in many ways Finland has a very consensus oriented culture where such subjects have been often been under a lot of ridicule and ostracization.

  11. There is a lot of interest, driven through the internet, in Freemasonry, Hermeticism, Astrology, Tarot, the Golden Dawn, Crowley, Alchemy and so on. I think it might be because the Buddhism is so much a Boomer tradition, maybe the Millennials are going for what’s the opposite of that?

  12. I’m one of these people; I also used to be involved in Boomerish Zen. AMA :)

    Broadly, (1) most of what David’s said about Tantra being a good fit applies equally well; (2) sort of reacting against exoticism about “the Wisdom of the East”; (3) nowadays a DIY approach to it is considered legit (hasn’t always been so, I gather!)

    As a STEM person I’m also really amused by the historical connections to science and math.

  13. Thanks, that makes sense!

    nowadays a DIY approach to it is considered legit

    That’s the “chaos magick” innovation, I guess?

    hasn’t always been so, I gather!

    My impression, as an outsider, is that there were always guys setting themselves up as the Grand High Poobah Of Ye Anciente Magicke, and claiming that only they could tell everyone else should do. However, mostly, no one paid them much attention; and there was nothing to stop anyone who wanted to from also declaring themselves Grand High Poobah. Typically none of them attracted more than about three followers, who stuck around for no more than a year before auto-Poobah-izing themselves.

    So I’m not sure this is really different in practice, although it’s nice that DIY is explicitly acknowledged.

    reacting against exoticism about “the Wisdom of the East”

    I wonder how much of that is actually reacting against Buddhism being infested with Poobahs too!

    One partial difference is that some of the Buddhist Poobahs are/were actually impressive people, whereas Western Ceremonial Magick has produced, as far as I can tell, somewhere between zero and one of those. (Was Crowley impressive? He’s a bit of a dancing bear. That is: impressive if you consider where he was coming from and what he had to work with, but lame on an absolute scale.)

    the historical connections to science and math

    Are you thinking of the early modern Hermetic philosophers? (Who were extremely cool.)

  14. That’s the “chaos magick” innovation, I guess?

    Yeah; chaos magic did a lot to make magic approachable for the “atomic mode” generation, I think. Hermetic and kabbalistic philosophy is pretty crazy. Intros to magic now often start with the idea of multiple relative truths as a way of easing into that, as you’ve also done over at Approaching Aro. Earlier books seem to spend a lot of time going “this is just like science, I swear,” which is not very believable.

    My impression, as an outsider, is that there were always guys setting themselves up as the Grand High Poobah Of Ye Anciente Magicke … none of them attracted more than about three followers, who stuck around for no more than a year before auto-Poobah-izing themselves.

    Haha, yeah, I can imagine! Thanks, that answers the question I was going to ask–it seemed odd to me that people weren’t more interested in the 1970s. Nowadays it’s uncommon to present one’s system as the One True Aunciente Magicke, although people still have a lot of fun openly declaring themselves Grand High Poobah Of Ye Anciente Magicke Whych I Invented Just Yesterday. Even back in the day, at least some of that stuff was deliberate trolling and in-jokes.

    Are you thinking of the early modern Hermetic philosophers? (Who were extremely cool.)

    Yes, partly — Isaac fricking Newton is on that list, which I still can’t get over! Also, Western magic likes to see itself as a descendent of Neoplatonism, which required beginners to study geometry and logic. In between there’s a lot of astronomer-astrologers, for instance.

    actually impressive people, whereas Western Ceremonial Magick has produced, as far as I can tell, somewhere between zero and one of those.

    W.B. Yeats is a common example, though he was a student and not a Poobah; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

    In general, though, magicians/hermeticists/etc. do seem to have been a lot more impressive before about 1800. I’m not sure what happened; maybe the invention of science-as-such diverted all the intense polymaths who would’ve been wizard-scientists a century earlier.

  15. I wonder how much of that is actually reacting against Buddhism being infested with Poobahs too!

    What I had in mind is a bit more complicated. I’m sure it’s different in Tibetan Buddhism, where real live Easterners are still running things, but in Zen the Eastern Wisdom thing feels about two generations old. Nowadays Western Zen seems to be trying to be less exotic and discussing how to “adapt Buddhism to Western culture”. But: if that’s our project, why start with Buddhism at all? Why not just use Western culture’s own stuff? The more I learn about both the stranger and more accidental that seems. (On an individual level, the answer is “I found a good teacher and they happened to be a Buddhist and not a magician,” which is very sensible, but I don’t really understand why things worked out that way.)

    “Western culture’s own stuff” is of course already heavily syncretized with Eastern ideas and practices, and vice versa. That’s going to be fun for a long time!

  16. “Western culture’s own stuff” is of course already heavily syncretized with Eastern ideas and practices, and vice versa. That’s going to be fun for a long time!

    Yes… I think maybe American Buddhism is ready to admit this and look seriously at the implications. The Boomer Buddhists mostly didn’t realize that the Buddhism they got from Asians was already massively syncretic, and once they started to realize it, they mostly refused to admit it, because it undercut the “Ancient Asian Wisdom” eternalist justification.

    I’m hoping the younger generations are more willing to evaluate Buddhism for what it is, instead of depending on Asian parental figures to guarantee it is the answer to all questions.

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