Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach

American Buddhist organizations and events rarely run smoothly. We take muddled ineffectuality for granted. Leaders don’t understand how to organize, and participants vigorously resist all systematic processes. Few are on board with principle that “if you say you are going to do something, you should do it.” (And if you are not going to do it, you need to tell someone about it and help clean up the mess.)

Someone said they were going to help set up for an event because they really felt like saying so was the way to preserve harmony and good feelings at the time; but something came up with a friend. And they didn’t feel that being there for the set-up was important. They “forgot” to tell you, because that might have led to bad feelings. It would be uncompassionate and un-Buddhist of you to give them a hard time about it, because helping out as agreed would have caused them suffering.

Unfortunately, transitory cooperative feelings and “being nice” do not get practical work done. This ethos exasperates and actively drives away competent people.

Buddhist classes starting late are a trivial, but telling, manifestation of a deep failing. By implicitly validating an adolescent way of being, contemporary Buddhism impedes personal growth.

Understanding what has gone wrong points to a profound opportunity. Buddhism could be a remarkable resource for supporting growth into full adulthood and beyond.

My analysis here depends on Robert Kegan’s model of the stages of adult development, explained on the last page. Some of it may not make sense unless you’ve read that.

Consensus Buddhism reflects a communal (Kegan stage 3) understanding of ethics, selves, relationships, epistemology, and society. By reinforcing stage 3 attitudes, it may actively obstruct personal growth. Better Buddhisms might instead support the transition from the communal to systematic mode (stage 4). They might also support the further transition to the fluid mode (stage 5).

Asian Buddhism at stages 3 and 4

Before looking at Consensus (American) Buddhism, two points about Asian Buddhism. Traditional Buddhism is communal (stage 3), like all traditional cultures. The Asian Buddhist modernism of the late 1800s (and continuing to the present) moved into systematicity (stage 4).

Traditional Buddhism is (mostly) traditional

There is little systematicity in pre-modern Buddhism. Its structure is mainly associationistic, not logical: think of Sutric Buddhism’s love of categorical lists, and the Tantric five-fold structure of correspondences.

There is a tradition of Buddhist philosophical logic, which at its best did develop coherent systems. This was mainly confined to Madhyamaka, whose logical details have relatively little relevance to most Buddhist practice. Still, the best such work is strikingly “modern,” or systematic—which is why Buddhist modernism has been more successful than Shinto modernism, for instance. I plan to write about this in a future post.

Ethics are a good illustration of the pre-systematic nature of traditional Buddhism. I’ve recently done a detailed analysis of the limitations of Buddhism’s compassion-based, communal ethics. Not only does Buddhist morality lack a systematic framework, it’s missing the raw materials, fundamental concepts, or individual elements, on which you could base a stage 4 ethics. There are no:

sets of principles that determine which actions, states of character or motives are virtuous or vicious, and no articulation of sets of obligations or rights.1

During its 20 year history, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics has published only one article that discusses Kohlberg or Kegan; and that one uses the framework only to argue a particular narrow point, rather than evaluating Buddhist ethics according to the Kohlberg/Kegan criteria overall. Presumably this is because Buddhist ethics comes out looking remarkably juvenile if you do.

That one article suggests that the structure of monasticism is stage 4. I think this was generous. Vinaya does include some attempts at justification, and does have some organizational structure, but they are extremely crude. There was also some amount of systematicity in the practical administration of large feudal-monastic estates. Overall, though, monasticism is a mainly communal, traditional, non-systematic institution.

Asian Buddhist modernism is (mostly) modern

Asian Buddhist modernism—initiated by Mongkut in the 1850s—sought not only to import individual Western ideas, but to remake Buddhism as a rational, modern system. This was not entirely successful, but it made substantial progress (as I’ve discussed in several historical posts).

Recently, I explained how Asian modernists imported systematic Western ethical and political systems. I’ve also explained how, for example, Japanese Zen imported the systematic German Romantic theory of enlightenment, replacing earlier Buddhist theories that made no sense.

Consensus Buddhism is “traditional”

Although Consensus Buddhism was based on extensively-modernized Zen and Theravada, it promptly regressed to stage 3 (the communal mode). The systematic Victorian morality adopted by Asian modernist Buddhism was unacceptable to 1970s young adults. Ironically, stage 3 is the mindset of traditional cultures. In this sense, Consensus Buddhism is “traditional,” not “modern”—despite its nearly complete lack of commonality with traditional Buddhism as found in Asia.

Incoherence, self-contradiction, the absence of any “therefores”—these are characteristic of Consensus Buddhist writing. I have taken Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma as my prototype Consensus Buddhist book, because it was the most coherent I could find. And yet my discussion of it points out its fundamental failure to make sense. I’ve also pointed out the incoherence of the Consensus critique of secular mindfulness.

I am not suggesting that Goldstein, or any Consensus Buddhist teacher, is personally limited to stage 3 functioning. Rather, what they teach—notably including their “Buddhist ethics”—is stage 3, and the community culture is stage 3. They have gone a long way to “meeting people where they are”—an admirable task. Making Buddhism available to people who have not yet passed stage 3 is a good thing. But Buddhism should also give people a path from where they are, and encourage them along the way.

Consensus Buddhist ethics is incoherent. It is supposedly based on “compassion” (the essence of communal morality) and therefore has no way of resolving ethical conflicts. It is also notionally based on the five precepts, but it posits vast, vague exceptions that render them meaningless. In practice, “obey community taboos and shibboleths” (i.e. mainstream leftish American morality) is the whole of the law.

Social justice is a large part of leftish morality, and therefore of “Buddhist ethics.” Social justice concepts were originally a product of European Enlightenment rationalism. If you can explain why they are correct, in terms of principles and justifications, that’s stage 4. If your understanding of social justice is “we should be nice to everyone and listen to their feelings, because that’s the nice thing to do, and being nice is what’s ethical,” that’s stage 3. Thich Nhat Hanh, who brought social justice into American Buddhism, certainly had a stage 4 (or 5) understanding; but in “meeting people where they are,” he presented it in stage 3 terms, and that’s mostly where Consensus Buddhist ethics remains.

The community considers it taboo to say anything racist. As far as I know, there’s nothing in Sutrayana that condemns racism. Why is it wrong? There are good Western stage 4 and 5 reasons for this, but I’d guess most Consensus Buddhists could not explain them clearly. It’s simply an American leftish taboo—and therefore contrary to “Buddhism.” Put on the spot, a Consensus Buddhist might answer that racism is uncompassionate, but the question would never be asked. To ask “why?” is itself highly taboo. To point out a specifically Buddhist reason to reject racism also violates the taboo. To ask why, or to explain why, are both taboo—because they imply that being taboo is not itself sufficient. That calls into question the whole basis of communal morality: mere consensus. In systematic ethics, by contrast, if something is wrong, it is wrong for a specific reason, and it is good to ask for it if you don’t know.

“We vow to save all sentient beings” is the bodhisattva ideal. There is no credible explanation in Mahayana texts of what it would even mean to save anyone, much less methods for how. It seems to be pure metaphysical hope. The Consensus often reinterprets salvation in practical terms, as “we vow to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings.” This is a sensible improvement. But it entails unlimited responsibility, which makes organized practical action impossible. If you are responsible to everyone in theory, you cannot be responsible to anyone in practice.

That was the point of the first paragraph of this post. Consensus Buddhists tend to be irresponsible, and their organizations ineffective, due to their stage 3 understanding of relationships as unlimited and unstructured.

Rejecting asymmetrical relationships—“we’re all equal here”—makes the teacher/student relationship conceptually awkward. It would be so much nicer if we could all sit in a circle and share our experience of Buddhism, and affirm each other’s insights non-judgmentally, and so achieve perfect consensus, and thereby ascend to enlightenment together. This totally does not work, so Consensus Buddhism reluctantly accepts that teachers are necessary; but it limits the role as much as possible. That limits teachers’ effectiveness, and eliminates much of the opportunity for learning.

Consensus Buddhists often explicitly reject systematicity as such. They are against “organized religion.” Often there is a deliberate lack thereof; and yet somehow we have to rent a room for the meditation group, and set up the chairs before starting, and collect donations, and deal with tax accountants.

Consensus Buddhism: an obstacle to personal growth?

A culture that consistently confirms stage 3 is helpful for those making the transition into the stage,2 and provides comfortable support for those squarely in it. It is an obstacle for those who are ready to grow toward systematicity, if it fails ever to challenge communal-mode functioning.

I suspect “Buddhist ethics” actively hinders the ethical development of Western Buddhists. Most Western adults achieve stage 3 without Buddhist help. It needs no confirmation from religion when it’s preached by every secular TV show. Confirming that compassion is the essence of ethics just tells people what they already believe and want to hear: “you are ethical enough as you are, because you care about others’ suffering, and that’s what matters.” Intelligent adults have at least an uncomfortable suspicion that this is not enough, and that they should get a more sophisticated ethical understanding. Buddhism provides magical transcendental justification (“the ancient Eastern wisdom of the omniscient Buddha!”) for developmental retardation.

More generally, Consensus Buddhism may actively hinder personal growth for many people. Part of the appeal of contemporary monism and Romanticism is their rejection of the inhuman demands of the systematic world—especially the world of work. Buddhism seems to function for many as a refuge from that: a comfortable social club in which we can feel morally superior by agreeing that capitalism is awful. This does nothing to improve, replace, or end the system, nor does it help anyone decrease their friction with it by learning how it works. (These would require stage 4 at minimum.) Communal consensus confirmation does feel good in the short run, but in the longer run it’s an excuse to avoid personal and social growth.

Better Buddhisms can support the transition to systematicity

The sangha should not be a comfortable social club. The job of the sangha is not to provide unconditional emotional support for students as they are, but to challenge their current way of being while supporting their progress on the path.

If someone says they will come early to help set up for the meditation group and they arrive late, we should be surprised, and concerned in case they had a genuine emergency, and ask what happened, and be disappointed if it was “something came up with a friend.” If someone has the potential to move toward stage 4, we should not say “oh, no problem.” That might be “compassionate.” Saying “you know, it was a problem for the rest of us that you weren’t here to help; we had to start late” might make them feel bad. But “no problem” is idiot compassion. It confirms that it is OK for them not to function as an adult.

I have used Shambhala Training as a paradigm of modernized Buddhism. (Although it was officially non-Buddhist. Maybe there’s a lesson in that.) Here I’ll point out some ways in which it trained people specifically in the stage 4 way of being.

“Precision and gentleness” was a Shambhala slogan. That’s a meditation instruction, but also an instruction for one’s overall way of being, and for the organization of society. “Gentleness” is supportive; “precision” is a challenge. “Precision” is not a nice word.

Shambhala sessions ran precisely on time. There was a fixed schedule, and if it said the talk begins at 2:00, it began at 2:00, not 2:03. (This was in striking contrast to the officially Buddhist events produced by the same organization, which invariably began late.) The training had a fixed curriculum with a clear, detailed, systematic logic.

Shambhala had a system of behavioral norms that were formal (invented, not natural), specific (not just general guidelines or vague principles), and rational (not arbitrary; there was a good reason for each). For example, if you showed up late for a session, you’d find the doors were closed. A door keeper would invite you to meditate for ten minutes or so on a cushion outside before letting you in. This is alien to American culture. It may have a Tibetan precedent, but I haven’t encountered one, and I suspect Trungpa Rinpoche invented it. This social practice had several rational functions, which were explicitly pointed out. If you walked in while people were meditating, you would disturb them while you thrashed around getting settled. If you sat outside for a while first, your mind and body would slow, and you would make less of a flap when you did go in. If several people were late, one disruption was better than several, so the door keeper would have everyone wait until the last straggler arrived and calmed down. Some people might be upset at not being allowed in; the door keeper would leave them sitting longer in that case, until they had calmed down. It became obvious that it would be better for everyone if you arrived on time. All this conveyed the message that the Training operated according to a system that made sense, and that everyone needed to play their parts, with attention to precision, in order for it to function well.

Shambhala had a system of asymmetrical roles that were formal (not biologically natural), specific (with defined prerequisites, duties, and limits), and rational (plainly necessary for the Training to function). This was presented with such skill that, somehow, even Berkeley anti-authority radicals rarely balked at it. It probably helped that roles were taken for only a weekend. The person who acted as Director (main teacher) at your Level I might be Staff (serving you breakfast) at Level II. This made it clear that the roles were formal, specific, and rational, not power-grabs by alpha monkeys. On the other hand, it was also clear that people are not equal. To act as Director obviously required not just formal prerequisites, but intrinsic ones—a great depth of meditation experience, social skills, and conceptual knowledge.

Few if any participants found this system cold, unfriendly, inhuman, or alienating. Quite the opposite. I haven’t emphasized the “gentleness” aspect of Shambhala Training, but it was always present and powerful. Shambhala was founded on “a vision of Enlightened Society,” and the structure of the Training manifested that in a way that made it hugely appealing. By showing how good stage 4 functioning can feel, Shambhala Training led people forward on a path to systematicity.

Buddhism beyond the systematic mode

The most-developed Buddhist curricula available in the West present detailed, systematic paths. These function as totalizing ideologies; they claim to present The Ultimate Truth About Life, The Universe, And Everything. As such, they are stage 4 systems, in part at least. The structures they provide can be valuable for dedicated Buddhist students with the desire and ability to go deeper than the Consensus can take them. However, like all systems, they cannot deliver on their promises of ultimacy. After some years, their limitations, rigidities, and internal contradictions become apparent to those who may be ready to move beyond stage 4.

Recognizing that no system can be perfectly solid, discrete, eternal, continuous, and fully-defined is what pushes you out of that stage. This is closely related to the Vajrayana presentation of emptiness, and its critique of eternalism, which it defines as the denial of emptiness. That critique, and the meditation practices that lead to direct experience of emptiness, may function as powerful challenges to systematicity.

Understanding the impossibility of perfect systematicity may propel you into nihilism—and the emptiness orientation of Sutrayana is arguably nihilistic. Vajrayana defines nihilism as “clinging to emptiness,” or the denial of form: the meaningfulness of manifest reality. Many intelligent Westerners get stuck at this point—stage 4.5 in Kegan’s framework. The leading edge of our culture realizes that, more than anything, we need a path beyond nihilism; but candidates are scarce.

I find resonances between Kegan’s stage 5 and some versions of Vajrayana, particularly Dzogchen. These may be only superficial, coincidental resemblances; I’m unsure. However, regardless of whether traditional Vajrayana was stage 5-like, the analogy suggests ways future Vajrayanas might operate at stage 5.

Vajrayana contains an extensive critique of nihilism. It offers a positive alternative to both eternalism and nihilism: ways of working with vivid empty form. That is groundless functioning, like a movie playing without a projector. Meditation methods such as yidam and rtsa rlung give direct experience of sourceless vividness, which for many people may be more useful than conceptual explanations. Here one finds the inseparability of bliss, emptiness, and clarity. That may be a powerful support during the 4 to 5 transition, which is often horrifying and depressing. Perhaps it can allow some people to skip the nihilism of stage 4.5 altogether. As in fluidity, these meditation methods reveal one’s self as nebulous but not without characteristics; and neither separate from, nor unified with, one’s body, other people, and the world at large.

Dzogchen relativizes all nine yanas as ideologies that can be used as tools, not truths. Dzogchen reconstructs each as a complete, relatively coherent system, with defined principles and functions and specific relationships to each other. (Whereas, presented in their own terms, they are pre-rational conglomerations that claim Absolute Truth but make only associationistic sense.) Thus, as in fluidity, Dzogchen is meta to multiple systems, which it relates to each other and deploys as appropriate. Like fluidity, Dzogchen both honors rationality as a tool and recognizes its limitations. It is comfortable with ambiguity, paradox, and apparent contradiction. The Dzogchen teacher conjures with yanas, fluidly switching among them, playfully animating them as vivid empty forms to bring about specific conceptual and non-conceptual understandings in students.

  1. Jay Garfield, “Buddhist Ethics.” 
  2. Teaching Consensus Buddhism in prisons is probably a very good thing, for this reason.