Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers

Brad Warner has just blogged about the Maha Teachers Council. He thinks it’s a problem that he was not invited—not because his ego’s offended, but because it means the conference organizers are actively excluding what he represents.

I think he’s right. In fact, I suspect the conference is all about what he represents, and that is why he wasn’t invited. [Update: apparently he was sent an invitation that got lost.] But his piece doesn’t explain what that is and why they are excluding that. Here’s my theory.

Here’s his own take on the shindig:

My fear is that Buddhism in America is going exactly the same direction as punk did when it became codified into a single prevailing fashion and sound. There is an accepted group of tastemakers and trendsetters within American Buddhism. They are entrenched as such and seek constantly to reify their positions and to expand their influence…

This conference “further consolidates a power base for a select group of individuals to determine the mainstream Buddhist message” in the words of Marnie Louise Froberg in her blog Mudhashala. It’s not that these people can enact any sort of legislation that is in any way binding. But they do have the power of their magazines and their institutes to push their version of the American Buddhist status quo.

I agree with this, but I think there’s a dimension that he and Marnie Louise Froberg are missing: the Western Buddhist elite are running scared. Something important is happening, and they don’t understand it.  They can’t understand from within their framework of “Boomeritis Buddhism.”

But, the “Maha Teachers” now understand that they don’t understand, and they are trying to figure it out. My guess is that is an unstated purpose of the conference.

If they do figure it out, they may try to quash it, or they may try to coopt it. (Much of the blogosphere comment so far has been concern about this.)

I hope, instead, that the Maha Teachers might genuinely embrace it. I’d like to think that the establishment Nice Buddhists are good guys; they are just locked into a wrong worldview. Maybe they can escape it. Maybe they’ll tear down the Consensus from within. (But that would mean letting go…)

Spitting on the Consensus

I’m blogging in a hurry, as events unfold, so I haven’t yet explained what the Consensus is. A big part of it concerns the proper role of Buddhist teachers. (This was the main subject of the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conference, which established the Consensus.) Brad Warner’s description is that the Consensus says teachers should be professional, which he adamantly refuses to be.

In Karma Dipped in Chocolate, he plays up his having sex with a student, his marital infidelity, and his drug use. He doesn’t clearly explain why. Here’s my take on that.

The Consensus wants to have a bunch of legalistic rules about what Buddhist teachers can and cannot do. This is antithetical to at least some forms of Buddhism (including Zen and Vajrayana).

The point is that, in context, his sex & drug activities were clearly benign (assuming he is telling the truth about the context, which no one seems to dispute). Meanwhile, the Western Buddhist establishment’s attempts at standards, credentials, and governance has clearly failed to prevent genuinely bad behavior by Western Buddhist teachers. (The Genpo affair, on which Brad Warner and Marnie Froberg have both commented extensively, is the most recent major example.)

This suggests that a legalistic approach of teacher behavioral standards can’t work. In fact, Zen and Vajrayana both make it explicit that rule-based ethics can’t work, more generally.

So, his sex & drug stories in Chocolate spit in the face of the Consensus.

[Update: Brad has blogged about my post here. (Thanks!) It’s a somewhat mixed review but does end “nice articles.” I’ve tried to correct the inaccuracies he noted.]