The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Preface

Yikes! Buddhist history is moving faster than I expected.

A couple years ago, I noticed that the Mainstream Western Buddhist Consensus had started to crumble at the edges. Younger teachers broke out of the rigid psychotherpeutically-correct Nice Buddhism model, and some senior Western teachers who had been pushing it for 15 years were starting, tentatively but publicly, to question it.

That was exciting, because I think the enforced consensus has been a Really Bad Thing. I predicted that this would accelerate and burst into the open in a couple of years.

So I started writing a book about it. (You can take the boy out of academia, but you can’t take academia out of the boy.) Fascinating as I found this subject, though, it seemed less important than the other two books I was writing. So all I have so far is a pile of half-baked notes and scattered thoughts.

It now appears that the “Maha Teachers Council” may be the venue where the creators of the Consensus are strategizing about their problem.  (Hat tip: NellaLou, who discusses this in detail in her Buddhist blog.) Their conference is happening right now, and it’s going to be written up in the Fall 2011 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.

So, if I’m going to write about this usefully, it has to be now. Instead of a carefully-researched book, I am going to do a blog series: a big brain dump of semi-digested ideas, odd facts, and wild-assed guesses.

I don’t like that. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I like to check all my facts carefully, survey the existing literature exhaustively, search for alternative explanations, and make sure my arguments are completely coherent. There isn’t time for that, so I am going to attempt to blog with reckless abandon, and clean up the mess later if need be. I apologize in advance for the certainty that I will get some things wrong.

The crumbling Western Buddhist consensus is a politically sensitive topic. I will suggest that some people have done some bad things. It’s especially important to get your facts straight when doing that—and this has been the main reason I have held off on writing about this before.

From the start, I want to be clear that I do not and will not condemn any individual or group. Everyone has mixed good and bad motivations, but I think that the creation and enforcement of the Consensus was mainly misguided rather than an evil plan for world domination.

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken” is the most recent conversation on the often-interesting Buddhist Geeks site. It’s a design view of meditation culture.

Design is a way of seeing, and a way of knowing, and a way of doing; and it’s a huge part of what I do and how and why, so it’s natural that I found this to my taste. And it’s natural that I found Rohan Gunatillake, the interviewee, saying things I’ve been going on about for a while.

Here are some of them.

It’s not just for Boomers anymore

Buddhism and meditation are mostly a Baby Boom thing. If Buddhism is going to survive, and if 30-somethings are going to meditate, that’s going to have to change. Because the current packaging is generation-specific.

The problems is, Boomers don’t realize they are talking Boomerese. They are unaware that their experience and world-view are not universal, and that their reference points are irrelevant to many in younger generations. I’ve tried to explain this to some, and have so far failed. Change is urgent, and it looks like it has to come from younger teachers.

Lose the goddamn wind chimes

Meditation, and Buddhism, are positioned in the market as products for holistic airheads. In Gunatillake’s words, “it’s all purple patchouli and woo woo language.”

Perhaps meditation and Buddhism can be useful to holistic airheads, but they’re more useful to people willing to do hard work and to understand how the real world works.

To work, meditation has to be rooted in the place and time you live in. Pretending we are in rural medieval India or China or Tibet is an escapist fantasy.

So is pretending that we live—or ever could—in a 1960s hippie utopia.

Looks count

Gunatillake is a professional web designer, and his Buddhist meditation web site doesn’t look like a Buddhist meditation web site. (No wind chimes.) It has what he calls an “urban aesthetic”.

This is really important. Buddhism doesn’t have to look nice.

I worked hard on the visual design of my Buddhism for Vampires site. It really doesn’t look like a Buddhist web site. And that’s its point: Buddhism is for everyone, not just vegan aromatherapists.

User-centered design

I used to work in software design. To make insanely great software, you have to find out what prospective users actually do, what they actually need, what they actually want. This is hard.

Meditation centers too often offer what they think people ought to want, based on what they think people need and do. I suspect those ideas are often quite wrong. But meditation teachers are often quite sure of them anyway. The generational disconnect plays a part here. What meditation teachers offer is usually what they found useful in the 1970s.

To make insanely great software, you have to directly involve users in the design, from the beginning and throughout. Gunatillake suggests doing the same for the “delivery” of meditation instruction. I second the motion.

This does not mean giving users what they say they want. That’s a classic design error. Users aren’t designers, they don’t know what they need, and they don’t know what is possible. You have to co-design with users.

Buddhist teachers often object to taking student desires into account. “Telling people what they want to hear would water down the dharma, turning it into generic ‘spiritual’ pablum. They can’t know what’s good for them.” Alternatively, some teachers do give students what they say they want—and those do churn out generic spiritual platitudes.

So both these are are mistakes to avoid. And that’s hard. (Cue lecture on the First Noble Truth.)

But it’s worth a try.

Riding Solo to the Top of the World


Riding Solo to the Top of the World is an extraordinary documentary film about one man’s journey into the Himalayas. Under-employed filmmaker Gaurav Jani set out to document his motorcycle adventure in the Ladakh Changthang—the highest and most remote part of his native India. What he found there went far beyond adventure.

With no money to hire a camera crew, he shot the whole film himself, mainly from a tripod. This made an already arduous undertaking far more difficult; to get a distance shot of his bike inching along a mountain track above a river gorge, he would have to set the camera up on the opposite side, start it running, ride over to provide the action, and then ride (or often run) back to collect the camera.

This odd constraint, which seems as though it would make the film static and awkward, does quite the opposite. It adds both drama (can he manage this shot?) and a meditative peacefulness. It helps that the Changthang landscape is stunning and his cinematography outstanding.

His plan was a simple adventure story; but that was not what he got. He intended to take his bike over the highest motorable passes in the world, on seasonal military tracks above 18,000 feet, where no motorcycle had ever gone before. That might have been mainly interesting for motorcycle travel geeks, like his previous effort One Crazy Ride, about hard travel across Arunachal Pradesh. As it happens, he succeeded in his plan, after overcoming dire obstacles.

When he reached the Changthang, however, his plan was nearly derailed by a radical change of intention.

It’s a cliché to say that any hard travel has an internal and an external dimension. In this case, the internal dimension might have been expected to involve heroic determination overcoming hardship and loneliness. And there is some of that—but also, again, exactly the opposite.

The Changthang is culturally Tibetan. Its few inhabitants, the Changpas, are pastoral nomads who practice the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I also belong).

Gaurav Jani fell in love with the Changpas, and spent unplanned weeks living with them. Most of the movie is about his interactions with them, and about their religious practices. He filmed both their daily life and religious festivals.

He describes his inner transformation as a result of encountering Tibetan culture. It parallels my own experience in the Himalayas. There is a peacefulness, a freedom, a rightness in the way ordinary Tibetans live that is enormously appealing. After a few weeks, it changes you permanently. You can no longer find the busy modern way of life sane.

He is currently living with the Changpas full-time for a year, and making a new movie about how they survive the -40 degree winter.

Riding Solo is sometimes shown at film festivals, where it has won a slew of awards; but if you want to see it, you’ll probably have to buy the DVD.

Try the trailer if you aren’t sure.

The edible gold indicator (I)

What does it mean when people eat money?

I sent this letter to my father in mid-1999, when I was running a San Francisco technology company:

Dear Dad,

I don’t know if you remember my college friend Richard? He’s now professing at Yale. He’s established a custom that whenever he’s in the Bay Area visiting his parents, he and I go out for dinner at a different extravagant restaurant.

This is on the theory that we are both rich. He’s rich because he has a deal with Microsoft that they give him a million dollars a year in exchange for however much of his time he feels like giving them. Apparently he once off-handedly told them something that made them tens of millions of dollars and so they figure it’s worth hoping he’ll do it again. I am also theoretically rich because I own most of a company that is supposedly worth squidloads, although I have no actual cash-type money.

It seems that every time he is here, the restaurant we go to is more absurd. It’s a sign of the times…

The one we went to last night specializes in “tall food”, the latest thing, in which the chef, by divers architectonic stratagems, contrives to elevate food, using only its own structural integrity, as far as possible off the plate. That the meal was not particularly tasty was surely not the point, as it was undoubtedly impressive.

I ordered a custardy dessert that was richly marbled with real gold leaf. How could I not, having read of such things only in history books? Roman emperors and robber barons. Richard and I decided to pass on the $300 half-bottle of Sauternes—he regretfully, and I derisively.

When our desserts arrived, and he was tapping his dubiously with his spoon—there being no obvious way to consume it without first toppling it, which (as it was considerably taller than its plate was wide) would seem to entail sprawling it across the tablecloth—

“You know what this is?” I asked: “This is fin de siecle decadence, is what this is.  And it will end badly.”



Six months later the US stock market reached its all-time peak of overvaluation, immediately followed by its worst crash since the 1930s.

That was not as badly as I expected it to end—because a new bubble was blown within a year. (The subject of a post to come.)

Gold is biologically inert: tasteless, non-toxic, and indigestible. It goes straight through.

What does it mean when people eat money?

I read Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class later that year. The book is famous for introducing the concept of “conspicuous consumption.” It made a big impression on me, and is still a big part of how I see the world. Veblen published it in 1899, exactly a hundred years earlier, when he was at Stanford, in the age of the San Francisco Robber Barons—the city’s last big boom.

Veblen’s work has a lot to say about why people eat gold during financial bubbles. But I don’t think he has the whole explanation. Maybe some other stories I can tell will add to the picture…

Translating the meditation research

There isn’t nearly enough time in life for all the useful things you could do. I always have far more fantasy projects going than real ones. In moments of undirected creativity or sudden enthusiasm, I tinker with the fantasies. I take notes, draw sketches, rant about them to friends. Most stay fantasies;  after years of gestation, some burst into reality.

Naljorma gZa’tsal and I have a shared fantasy project: explaining current neuroscience research on meditation in a way that could be useful to meditators.

This research is wildly exciting because it confirms that meditation actually works the way it is supposed to. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal… For example, I’ve been meditating for decades, and it has certainly seemed to me that it works as advertised.

The problem is, it’s extremely easy to fool yourself about things like this. Many of my friends have spend decades practicing “alternative therapies,” and are totally confident—based on experience—that they work. I’m totally confident that they don’t work. There are so many ways to convince yourself something is working that doesn’t—unless you can actually measure it.

Continue reading “Translating the meditation research”