Comments on ““Ethics” is advertising”

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roughgarden 2015-10-05

Good stuff, strong sociological analysis. I wrote in a similar vein on “Buddhism as brand” in a post called “No Logo: the Post-Buddhism Buddhist”

roughgarden 2015-10-05

“Perhaps even more interestingly, a modernized form of Nyingma Tantra is considered the highest-status version.” Precisely. And even more precisely, the higher the social status of the Buddhist community, the LESS concerned they are with ethics and social justice; the more likely they are to view Buddhism strictly as individual liberation. The higher the class status, which includes the majority of tantra practitioners, east and west, the more they appear to use Buddhism as a justification for not giving a shit about anybody but themselves.

I left a Nyingma Dzogchen tantra community because it was insufferably classist, catering to the global elite who make 6 & 7-figure incomes. The previous community was Shambhala, also insufferably classist. After these experiences, I left institutional Buddhism altogether, and practice as a “post-buddhism Buddhist” (See above).

For more on a class analysis of Buddhism, which I often discuss on Engage!

David Chapman 2015-10-05

roughgarden — Thanks, that’s a great post; I’ve tweeted a link to it!

I thought what you said about Gen X / Gen Y attitudes to institutions is right and important.

Unfortunately, while I think the institutions created by Boomer Buddhism have outlived their usefulness, I think the kind of Buddhism I want to see does require institutions to function. It can’t work on a DIY basis. (Some upcoming posts address this obliquely; I might also write about it explicitly at some point.)

I’ve been thinking recently that, with Consensus Buddhism having come to an end, Gen X/Y anti-institutionalism is the remaining main obstacle to modern Buddhist tantra. There’s probably ways to work around that, but it’s somewhat daunting.

Dublin 2015-10-05

Just a couple comments:

These titles are getting more clickbaity by the article. If you haven’t already, can you admit this prominently?

And, what signals do you suppose you put out, especially from this blog?

Marie Ramos 2015-10-05

Great series. Shines a light on how tribal we are, and now invisible our tribal-ness is to us.

And I have to thank you for the beautiful little footnotes with back-links. May this become a web-standard!

David Chapman 2015-10-05

Marie — Thank you very much!

The footnotes are produced via the Wordpress Markdown feature. I recommend it!


These titles are getting more clickbaity by the article. If you haven’t already, can you admit this prominently?

I hereby admit it gladly and explicitly. I think it’s obvious enough that “prominently” would be a waste of readers’ attention.

Relatedly, it’s obvious that some of what I write is satirical, which is not nice. Some people object to that. I do it because the topic is otherwise extremely dry, and few people would want to read about it without a leavening of humor. I do it partly because some readers enjoy it—and I like to help people enjoy themselves. I do it also partly because it increases the number of readers—and I want these ideas to be more widely understood.

what signals do you suppose you put out, especially from this blog?

Answering that would take a long blog post; and I don’t think anyone cares about what I think about myself. Or at least, no one should care about that! It doesn’t interest even me.

Dublin 2015-10-05

Not sure how to use the quote function.

I appreciate the satire and motivation for the titles. I just think it’d be better to acknowledge (or even make fun of) the fact that you’re using clickbaity tactics. Unacknowledged, intentionally dishonest, etc clickbait is common.

When I read an author make any kind of sociological observation it seems natural to me to apply that sociological observation to the author. Surely when you read Spent you thought about how you yourself send out signals, so I don’t think “doesn’t interest even me” applies. Openness about your own signal sending seems to me relevant to this article.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-05

I do wonder if Tantric practice still gives one some social status. It’s complicated and slightly inaccessible. I see lots of people practicing one form or another of it here in West LA. Dzogchen and other non-dual practices have status I think. Having a shaman is hot too. I think the bigger status signal right now might be following a Paleo diet, or an ancestral diet. Having food sensitivities and foods you avoid are good too- it’s slightly difficult and implies that you are very discerning and careful and are paying attention to your health, but in a virile way- meat and potatoes- meaning that you are no sissy and are getting real. Also, it’s not cheap. Raw foods are still really hot, and pickiness about the kind of water you drink- I have heard so many discussions about this that I could never possibly count them. It’s a little hard to see out of my own bubble, but those are the things that seem to be happening on the westside of Los Angeles- unless you’re a vegan, but then you are back to the weak and ineffectual thing again, and are probably also doing mindfulness Doing hatha yoga is also important, and walking around in yoga clothes, talking about the yoga retreat you went to in Maui is good too. Detox diets. Raw vegan detox diets even better.

David Chapman 2015-10-05

Interesting, thanks!

I follow a Paleo/ancestral diet, loosely—mostly because it’s tasty and funny rather than because I believe it has health effects. I didn’t know it had status value too!

Since I practice tantra AND Paleo, I must have VERY high status! Yay!

mtraven 2015-10-05
Buddhism isn’t daring and sexy and hip anymore; it’s your batty aunt’s quaint, harmless, old-fashioned hobby.

Maybe that’s a good thing. You will find people getting into Buddhism for other reasons than being daring and sexy and hip – maybe better ones. I have no personal stake in Buddhism but have felt something similar about quite a few other things I have been into.

Of course I am just trying to signal my superiority by claiming to be above normal signaling practices.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-05

Thinking about this while I sat and did my Tantric practice with my lama at the Tibetan Buddhist center I go to, looking forward to my paleo dinner at home (when I should have been focusing) this evening I was thinking back to when I was investigating spiritual approaches maybe a dozen years ago here in LA. I can remember quite distinctly that it was all about Nondual teaching- of whatever tradition- such as dzogchen. It was also all about tantra. I never really heard anybody rave about mindfulness- that’s almost a medical treatment now, and it was huge in psychology circles. I remember lots of zen talk in the 70s and 80s though. It really does all seem to be about tantra too. I guess the prestige has in fact switched to tantra- it’s definitely more rarified; it’s more complicated to learn; it involves languages like Sanskrit and Tibetan and the Himalayas; you can take exotic trips to investigate it; you have lots of stuff to learn too, which puts others off and makes you look smart I suppose. It doesn’t seem to be so much about weird America gurus like in the 60s though- it’s more serious now- perhaps the authentic lineage thing gives you more credibility, and protects you from weird cult assumptions. It also means you are likely to have a smaller and more intimate community experience. I know a lot of film types like it- we have some very upper crusty types who come to our center, and a child of a very famous celebrity couple. It must be cool in their circles I’d suppose. Anyway, it occurs to me that that dzogchen Tantric type teaching, and similar types from other traditions, is quite likely where the opinion leaders are in fact going at this time. That’s what was happening when I was heavily looking around and I don’t think it has changed. In Asia this stuff was upper crusty too.

semnyisun 2015-10-05

I had visionary mushroom trip experience once when I was 21 relating to the line of Dalai Lamas and Tibet, snow lions and wheel of fire in the sky and everything, it’s funny you posted most of the time because I was listening to Oh Mercy on head phones during that trip. Anyway, that’s why I decided to take the Kalachakra empowerment with HH, for me it’s got nothing to do with who you think is ethical and everything to do with who you think is a tantric adept.

fiona 2015-10-06

Thank you for this series. I’ve (sort of) given up on Buddhism after attending various sanghas/retreats/talks, etc. I just couldn’t take the bland Unitarian-ness of it all.

I want to ask you about metta, because I feel like it ties into your point about agreeableness — but I believe you’ve cited metta specifically as something you have found valuable in Buddhism (correct me if I’m wrong).

It seems to me that some of the qualities of the exemplary Western Buddhist (and those promoted specifically as products of “metta”) also overlap with the conventional desirable female traits of being ever loving, extremely empathetic, unrelentingly friendly, even towards those who cause harm, etc. Most liberal educated American women aren’t willing to admit that they feel guilty about not being agreeable (feminism made that uncool!). Basically, I think Buddhism provides a secular-leftist-approved rationale for women to hold themselves to the ideal of being likable 100% of the time, to everyone, which is exhausting and unhelpful. (This also ties into your point about Western Buddhism as an expression of Protestantism; metta as taught in Bay Area sanghas sounds a lot like Jesus’ love to me).

I would be interested in knowing how/if you think metta could be of real value, rather than just reinforcing over-agreeableness (gendered or otherwise).

David Chapman 2015-10-06


Maybe that’s a good thing. You will find people getting into Buddhism for other reasons than being daring and sexy and hip — maybe better ones.

I hope so! My fear is that 20 years of Consensus hegemony has trained everyone to think “Buddhism? Lame personal-advertising strategy from the 1990s”—even people who would get into it for good reasons if they knew what it actually can be.

David Chapman 2015-10-06

Foster Ryan — Thanks, these are very interesting observations!

The post I have scheduled for Friday discusses the ways Tantra combines working-class and aristocratic values (both historically and in the present). It’s interesting to know that it’s still appealing to the upper classes in L.A.; I wasn’t really aware of that.

David Chapman 2015-10-06

fiona — Thanks for these comments, which are insightful and (for me) slightly uncomfortable!

I’ve (sort of) given up on Buddhism after attending various sanghas/retreats/talks, etc. I just couldn’t take the bland Unitarian-ness of it all.

Come over to the dark side!

I want to ask you about metta, because I feel like it ties into your point about agreeableness — but I believe you’ve cited metta specifically as something you have found valuable in Buddhism (correct me if I’m wrong).

You have caught me in a polite lie. Most of the time, I am disagreeable when appropriate, but occasionally I slip and am nice when I shouldn’t be.

I have not ever actually practiced metta. I have practiced lojong, tonglen, and chöd, and did find them valuable. I included metta in the list in a misguided attempt to be ecumenical and say something nice about the Consensus. I had been tempted to say something snarky about metta, and suppressed that.

I have read (somewhere) that the metta practice taught in America was invented by Sharon Salzberg, and has no specific ancestry in traditional Buddhism. I don’t know whether this is correct. (If someone knows, or tracks it down with a web search, I’d be interested to hear.)

Since I have not actually practiced it, I can say only that, from a distance, it looks to me like you are correct here:

It seems to me that some of the qualities of the exemplary Western Buddhist (and those promoted specifically as products of “metta”) also overlap with the conventional desirable female traits of being ever loving, extremely empathetic, unrelentingly friendly, even towards those who cause harm, etc. Most liberal educated American women aren’t willing to admit that they feel guilty about not being agreeable (feminism made that uncool!). Basically, I think Buddhism provides a secular-leftist-approved rationale for women to hold themselves to the ideal of being likable 100% of the time, to everyone, which is exhausting and unhelpful.

Did you read the essay by Nella Lou I linked in the footnote about the feminization of American Buddhism? I suspect you’d find it to your taste.

roughgarden 2015-10-06

It’s from the Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Hymn of Universal Love
also found here, as The Discourse on Loving Kindness, original Pali with translation

semnyisun 2015-10-06

Interesting comments about Shambhala and that Nyingma Dzogchen community being classist roughgarden. Shambhala is the only sangha I’ve really been involved in to any extent, there is not much else here in St. Johns. But its Dzogchen mostly that I gravitate towards, if your going to be a Buddhist you might as well aim for the highest and sexyist eh. But yeah… For a working class Joe like me forking out for a trip to Sutrayana Disneyland is not really a high priority, which is fine, I learned about all I needed to learn doing the first 5 levels, I always knew how to take it to level 11 anyway. I find Shambhala is still a great place to go and sit, and the people and teachers I’ve met have been uniformly great, but yeah, I have issues with fealty too David and I dont want to interfere in other peoples paths… Sometimes the dark side is more fun, there have been times at church where I’ve been like, wait a sec, I’ve got a drawer with shrooms, acid, and ecstasy waiting for me at home, when does the real party start… I might just have the attention deficit disorder, im lazy and I get bored with practice easily… Love

Frank D 2015-10-06

Thank you so much for these articles. Very enlightening. I live in a very liberal/leftward part of the US where “buddism” is frequently being pushed even in schools to promote “tolerance” and “open-mindedness”.

Seems to be gaining ground as a tool for many to mask guilt and nihilism.

roughgarden 2015-10-06

“The post I have scheduled for Friday discusses the ways Tantra combines working-class and aristocratic values (both historically and in the present). It’s interesting to know that it’s still appealing to the upper classes in L.A.; I wasn’t really aware of that.” Surprised? I’m not.

A study of religious membership in the US shows that San Jose, California is the most Buddhist city, followed by Boulder, Colorado. Hawaii is the state with the highest percentage of Buddhists, followed by California. Los Angeles has 70,000 Buddhists, with 145 Buddhist centres. Recent projections are that Los Angeles will become the epicentre of US Buddhism.

Check the map in the Huff-Post article.

The Buddhist sect with the most members in the US is Insight Meditation Society, right? Wrong. It’s Soka Gakkai Int’l, with 330,000 members. SGI is originally a Japanese Nicheren sect which has no connection to IMS or Theravada. IMS claims 20,000 members. I was told Shambhala has 10,000 members in the US. I can’t find any stats on Zen affiliation.

Pew’s study of “Whites who are Buddhist in the US” has some interesting results:

Foster Ryan 2015-10-06

Roughgarden, that was interesting. It’s clear that California and the west coast are the epicenter. In one way it’s obviously partially a result of the region having the largest Asian populations, but not only. It seems to me that Buddhism is the Asian tradition settled on as a respectable alternative to Judeo-Christian traditions. It just works better than the other Asian traditions, although there are still plenty of Hindu tradition practitioners here, but Indian religion brings a lot of challenging baggage with it, although it is clearly rich in good qualities. Hindu practices still make one a little suspect, push the vegetarianism too much, and are too culturally Indian for easy adoption among regular people, of whatever class. Buddhism is intellectually acceptable, considered compatible with science, and heavily supported in the holistic and psychotherapeutic community. I think that the large presence of Asian populations forms a powerful economic foundation for the propagation of Buddhism. They have money and they spend it to build temples and sponsor teachers. A lot of the Vajryayana events and centers are heavily populated by Asians, especially the Chinese. Vajrayana seems to have a lot of prestige in these populations. A large percentage of my center is Asian American- maybe 40%- and this in a white majority area, but not only white of course- along with African American and white folks, and a few latinos. We had conversations about moving from the white Westside for a better location and one of the arguments was to move to East LA somewhere, where the Chinese population would heavily support us. We do have Chinese sangha members from the area and they say that there would be a lot of support over there among their friends. As somebody put it, for them to be Vajrayana practitioners is like for a white person to be Episcopaean or Catholic. It’s respectable and makes them upstanding members of society. It’s interesting that there was some mention on your page of a Nyingma Dzogchen group being the pinnacle of the social ladder. That’s a trip on an idea, but I can see it as possible. It has great clout as the pinnacle of teachings, and more doable for non-monks, and the least puritanical.

roughgarden 2015-10-06

Thanks, Foster, It’s really great to have some ‘on the ground’ first hand accounts to correlate with the numbers. I was told that in the Dzogchen community I was in that there were a significant number of wealthy Chinese members. These are the global elite who can afford international jet travel to an exclusive two-week retreat with the guru. The sangha headquarters is in Seattle, so a lot of people were flying in from the East. However, when I saw photos of people who went on these retreats, they were, almost to a person, white people, mostly women, between the ages of 60 and 80 years old, quite a bit older than some other Vajra/Dzogchen sanghas. That doesn’t discount what you saw in the sanghas in the Los Angeles area, but it’s just the makeup of this particular group, wealthy retirees, the ‘golf and cruise’ set.

Foster Ryan 2015-10-06

Roughgarden: Oh, that’s not the case here at all. Ages range from college age to 80s. Ethnically everybody. We have poor to rich. Every class type seems comfortable there. One person lives in their car a lot of the time, another ex-homeless African American in public housing, computer programmers, a bunch of acupuncturists and psychotherapists, lots of Asian women from everywhere in Asia, French, lesbians, gay men, married, single. People tend toward intelligent and tidy. Some bring their kids to tsoks. The Bhutanese community with their families show up for tsoks and events. The events are fun and everybody gets a bit drunk. We have a chod tsok tomorrow night and I’m sure lots of us will drink too much and have a lot of fun. Not overly leftie/hippie. Maybe my lama sets a pretty balanced tone. He is Bhutanese and has a family and is a pretty balanced guy. I’d say that my guess is that this sangha is fairly representative of most sanghas in the area for this type of tradition based on the crowds at events I’ve gone to.

David Chapman 2015-10-06

Wow, that sounds great!

Would you mind telling us who your Lama/Sangha are? (I think you may have done so before but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.)

Foster Ryan 2015-10-06

Khenpo Sonam at Lhundrup Choling. You know him from Pema Osel LIng where he used to live and work.

David Chapman 2015-10-06

Oh, wonderful! Somehow I had completely forgotten that. He gave me lots of useful advice when I was going on pilgrimage to Bhutan. Wonderful teacher; I’m very glad he now is reaching a larger group of students than when I knew him.

Shane 2015-10-07

Hi David, and thanks for this great series.

"Similar people enjoy each others’ company, and getting accurate information about other people’s personalities allows us to form like-minded communities."

I think consumption/signalling is a lot about the person you want to be. You become a Buddhist not just to signal you are agreeable, but to try and become more agreeable, so that signalling of being agreeable has better validity (as Miller argues, personality signals can get busted pretty quickly).

My observation is that the reason for the popularity of consensus Buddhism (and the vogue for mindfulness meditation) is that it is a religion/practice of self-help. It’s a therapy, People who are low in emotional stability want to be higher in stability - less stressed and neurotic, more calm and happy. If you are guilty about being a mean person who shouts at your kids, Buddhism (in theory) offers a route to being more nice (and we know nice people are more happy). If you a bit disorganised, absent minded, easily sidetracked, procrastinate, and don’t always achieve your goals (low conscientiousness), meditation offers a path to becoming a better you, to become a concentration master and get your act together and get shit done.

So people gravitate to be with like minded people, but they also gravitate to the promise of being the people they want to become - with role models in the personality displays of wise, emotional stable and nice Buddhist teachers. Though in practice they end up hanging out with the neurotic like minded people who want to be less neurotic - the people that make up a lot of Buddhist retreats (non-neurotic people tend not to feel the need to spend much time and money to be become less neurotic).

Within Buddhisms, there are different types that match personality type - aro is very extrovert and open, zen very introvert (and some forms also quite closed), though again here, rather than the appeal of “like-minded people”, attraction to particular Buddhist forms may often involve aspiration for your self-development. Or in the case of retreats, some extroverts might want to introvert-out for a while. Closed minded people might want to become more open minded.

"By “Buddhism is for losers” I mean that, at this point, saying you are a Buddhist is likely to signal that you are loser in the eyes of many people who, a couple decades ago, would have been impressed. For them, “Buddhist” now means “well-intentioned but ineffectual”; someone who can’t get their stuff together enough to do anything significant or interesting."

Right, because successful happy with meaningful lives don’t tend to turn to religion to fix themselves and find meaning (at least in the secular societies of modern Europe). Unsuccessful unhappy people who struggle with meaning may look for for “answers” such as the turn to Buddhism, because they need to fix themselves, because there is something wrong with them (or least they think that), because they struggle with navigating the modern world, ergo, losers. Losers with middle class, white person problems (I say that as a white middle class person who likes Buddhism!)

And so from a marketing point of view, this isn’t good for Buddhism. In my society as a male - individualistic, hedonistic Britain - the perception of needing a crutch - a life coach, a self-help book, following a teacher, Buddhist group, is seen as beta. And so in terms of signalling, this makes Buddhism (and future Buddhisms?) a hard sell for the current generation (at least in England).

Dan 2015-10-07

Shane: “If you a bit disorganised, absent minded, easily sidetracked, procrastinate, and don’t always achieve your goals (low conscientiousness), meditation offers a path to becoming a better you, to become a concentration master and get your act together and get shit done.”

Huh. Do you know of any specific practices that are supposed to do that? Zen-style shikantaza meditation has done some things for me, but that was not one of them–and lord knows I could use the help!

David Chapman 2015-10-07

Shane — Thank you! Those insights all seem right to me.

Shane 2015-10-11

Dan - it would be nice if meditation did those things! But my comment was more on the sales pitch, or what lay people think meditation will do - in part due to the way mindfulness meditation is often marketed - in practice meditation doesn’t do all those things, In fact, it can do the opposite (e.g. rather than becoming a better you, realising that there is no you, just an undifferentiated energy field…).

mariearamos 2015-10-12

Shane - so tell us about the non-neurotic, non-losers. What are those people like? Did they manage to get raised in extremely happy families? Are they all at ‘Stage 5’ (see David’s next post for the definition of Stage 5)?

Wonderful article. I forget what track led me here, and the back-button doesn’t tell me. I have posted it at my own site. I am an evangelical Christian of the CS Lewis/GK Chesterton type, and have made similar points over the years about about signalling in popular Christian culture versus traditional Christian practice. I work at a state psychiatric hospital, and the professionals there, especially social workers, psychologists, nurses, and occupational therapists, have strong leanings toward what you refer to as Consensus Buddhism - an insipid signalling of niceness and moral superiority. I have known a very few over the years who seemed to be Buddhist with more rigor and self-awareness, and with those I have found some common understanding. The others are like the unrigorous Christians (mostly Unitarian and Episcopalian up here), who subscribe to the Bernie Sanders school of all-religions-teach-the-same-thing.

I also note, in contrast to a critic here, that you could not have written this had you not already directed the searchlight pretty strongly on yourself before looking at others. That is very CS Lewis/Screwtape Letters/On The Reading of Old Books - of you.

My disagreements are down at the level of quibbles, and it may be that people whose religions actually are different are never fully able to make that final handshake. Centers are rather like greased watermelons, perhaps. I would note only that your reading of history includes more late 20th C conventional wisdom than is quite justified. Still, I don’t have a specific era to counter with that doesn’t have equal blind spots.

If something brilliant occurs to me, I’ll bring it back.

Emerich 2015-10-20

Very interesting, quirky, and enjoyable post. As a meditator working in the financial industry, I am constantly put off by the uniform ignorance of the Buddhist community about economics, and the resulting foolishness of many of their pronouncements. That includes, ahem, the end of your post, about the certainty of the end of work because of technology, a certainty that started with the industrial revolution. But this time it’s different! See if you are still so certain after you ponder and understand why a country like the U.S. could go from one with 50% of the population in farming to 2% in 100 years with no increase in unemployment, or why the conveyor belt, mechanization, and robotocization of industry haven’t led to 90% unemployment. Homework: what adjustments had to take place to create employment to replace dying industries, and why does new employment in new industries seem to materialize exactly as fast as old employment and industries die? Suppose a hyper-D supercomputer available to each of us could create all the food and things we use today for free on demand. Would that guarantee unemployment for all? Are you really so certain that times are different and technology will finally deliver unemployment dystopia?

Sorry for the rant. Anyway, I’m delighted to have discovered your blog, as you are willing and able to be provocative, and with a sense of humor.

David Chapman 2015-10-20

Emerich, thank you very much! Glad you enjoyed it.

I have no particular beliefs about how the economy will develop; I was pointing to some typical longer-term scenarios—utopian as well as dystopian. The actual evolution may likely be less drastic than either. Whether it includes massive voluntary unemployment or not, I have no idea. I’ve read plausible arguments both ways.

I do think that the structure of the economy changes drastically every few decades; which does lead to shifts in signaling strategies. I have no certainty about what they will be, but I’m certain there will be changes.

Roger Strider 2015-10-21

This was so interesting! Thank you for writing it. I’ve never really considered signalling like this (barely considered it at all really). I’ve not really read anything lately that explains so much of what we experience around us as this.

Fool 2015-10-31

Use all new Bodhi Pong - the aroma of Enlightenment that drives the tantrikas wild !

Alf 2015-10-31

” Individuals who buy “fair trade” products just want to signal; they don’t actually care whether it benefits poor people thousands of miles away, so they don’t bother to check.”

Is this fair ? Seems like an over generalisation, and also forgetting it might not be a case of not bothering to check but rather not having the time to. If nobody was checking, you wouldn’t know about the scandals and hidden agendas. Plus, I think many do care, it’s not just about signaling - could be less so in America than elsewhere.

Absolutely fair. The takedowns on “fair trade” are common internet stuff. I might go so far as to allow that part of signalling is “getting the word out,” (though that’s also an easy excuse), and it might rise as high as “I’d like to do something, and I can’t find anything better to highlight the issue.” But that’s still pretty small beer.

If your first response to this line of thought, with no pause or disclaimers is “oh no, that can’t be right; many people are quite sincere in these things,” then I am worried you won’t ever hear bad news about your own tribe.

Argoes 2015-11-10

Some really astute comments on the middle classes there. It applies equally outside the US.

“Conspicuous blandness—the absence of distinctive taste—is typical of the middle middle class. If you know you cannot pass a test of independent opinion, it’s the next-best strategy. If you admit no atypical passions, no one can needle you about them, so you can simulate emotional stability. Also, in a situation where you aren’t sure even what the consensus opinion is, expressing none at all is safest.”

I’ve never seen this stated succinctly, if at all, yet I see this behaviour regularly.

Alf 2015-11-10

“If your first response to this line of thought, with no pause or disclaimers is “oh no, that can’t be right; many people are quite sincere in these things,” then I am worried you won’t ever hear bad news about your own tribe.”

I’ve bought fair trade in all sincerity, but possibly in naivety. As for the others, they’re all bastards :-)
I do, however, assume that at least a portion of fair trade deals are bent, because suppliers are often too poor to bother with Western consumer niceties, and middle men like corruption. Maybe I underestimate that proportion.
Dunno, have to look it up.

Terry Davis 2015-11-29

I asked God if the World was perfectly just. God asked if I was calling Him lazy. In the New Testament, there is a little understood phrase where Paul says we are not bound by law, but are we going to be sinners? If you believe in reward and punishment in this life, like Dante’s Inferno. Nothing matters. Do what you like and rest assured you will be rewarded or punished. I believe pleasures are generally designed to balance with pains. I drink a ton of diet soda. Am I not moral? Relax, I’ll probably get cancer and if not, it’s God’s business. With my belief in justice, I mostly feel like keeping my mouth shut. There’s really no reason to enlighten simple people who believe in right and wrong. If I don’t help the poor, maybe people think I am a Satanist. It’s hard to explain that they will be rewarded, but it’s just not my thing. God said war was servicemen competing. An evolutionist’s jaw might drop and suddenly not be so fond of evolution.

So your solution is not to think very hard, but tell people about it.

Steve Alexander 2016-04-21

David Chapman 2016-04-21

Thanks! Not surprising that political opinion columnists would prefer that people not understand why they read political opinion columns. The popularity of the phrase “virtue signaling” is probably cutting into their business (and their self-image).

Somewhat relevant, from a couple days ago: Influencing Myself:Self-Reinforcement Through Online Political Expression:

Political expressions on social media and the online forum were found to (a) reinforce the expressers’ partisan thought process and (b) harden their pre-existing political preferences. Implications for the role the Internet plays in democracy will be discussed.

Out of procrastination, and for the reason that my physics simulation code tests take time, I finally read this whole text and connected conversation through…

What I noticed is, that this pattern is not something what I really recognize happening in my country (Finland). Buddhism as a social signalling has never really been meaningful.

This is partially perhaps connected to the Finnish culture, as it is socially usually viewed that matters of religious belief are very private and you would not discus them in casual conversation. This would apply also to the Protestant Lutherans Christians - the most conventional of religions. I have the impression that in the United States people are much more open about their religious views.

I could imagine two, a bit connected, reasons for this lack of pattern. First, compared to the United States, Finland has been a strange periphery region which has meant, at least before the internet, that ideas and fads would travel slowly here. I think people in general got interested in Buddhism much later, though I am not sure of the timeline. It would not have carried much significance for the baby boomers in 1960s - there were other movements which were popular.

Second, Finland experienced a shocking level of socio-economic change during the decades after the WWII. The whole country turned from farming and forest industry into high tech (i.e. Nokia). The role of the social classes would be very different, and also what it means to be politically “left” or “right”.

These two things would mean that the demographics of Buddhism would be different in many ways, too time consuming to characterize.

I see boomer generation people more in the groups connected stuff like Theosophy. When it comes to the Buddhist groups I know the best, like the Finnish Aro Sanga (I am an Apprentice), the Danakosha Dharma Center ( and the Helsinki Shambhala group, the average age of the participants is clearly bellow the boomer generation. This also applies to the other groups I know less well.

Personally I became a Buddhist because I was interested in all kind of occult stuff and mysteries of consciousness. Signalling has never been the issue.

I have perhaps repeated some of this elsewhere, but I hope my analysis could be beneficial to others in terms of perspective.

David Chapman 2016-08-19

Thank you! This is consistent with what I’ve heard about Buddhism in Finland from several Aro students. Definitely very different from America, and in promising ways.

Yes. I find that the fact that even in so-called Western countries there is no single monolithic situation for this gives hope for the future of Buddhism. :)

However, although the situation is different where I live, it is interesting to read what you write. It is still the case that most of the Buddhist books etc. written by westerners come from the Anglo-America language area. Therefore, whatever is written in US has huge impact to the general opinion what Western Buddhism should be.

Before actually involving myself with traditional Buddhism and things like Aro gTér, therefore getting to know the subject in depth, I was certainly plagued by Consensus Buddhist stereotypes. Buddhism appeared like some kind of a fuzzy feel good philosophy, without any actual fun, lacking either shape or taste.

It took me a while to realize that reason I had these bad stereotypes, was because “Western Buddhism” had taken this huge 2500 year old tradition, and reduced it from the most of the cool or challenging parts to make it fit for certain kind of people I could not connect with. — If I want inoffensive, tasteless, plain and acceptable religion with a lot of “I am a proper normal person” signalling, there is the state supported Finnish Lutheran Church. Why I would need Buddhism for that?

It is especially sad to see a lot of stories and legends discarded because those contain things like supernatural elements. We can of course argue $10^{666} \mathrm{Myr}$ what is true and what is not, but there is emotional significance to many of those stories, and such things matter as they make life and practice interesting.

Ha. I intended to write just a short answer, but then I just kept going. I guess I am in a ranting mood. :D

cesar camba 2016-10-01

It seems to me that the boundary between bland agreeability and indifference is porous.

Very interesting article.

Question: as Buddhism is to the 1960s, X is to 2017. What, in your opinion, is X?

Suggestions: you may enjoy N. Taleb’s ideas about social class today. He has a blog on Medium.

You pack a lot into a small space Martina! Yes, NNTaleb, on many topics. He overshoots and overplays at times, but he is more solid and original than just about anyone out there. Fascinating question you pose. The quick answer is “spirituality,” though Buddhism and UU still hold sway. My worry is that the answer is increasingly “Nothing beyond current popularity.” It is not an aggressive nothing as online atheists sometimes present, but a vagueness and inability to even conceive of what the current-event morality does not include.

Careerpassionyogi 2017-04-19

Very thought provoking. I don’t think Buddhism sends quite the same signals in the UK, as the only people I know who describe themselves as Buddhists have spent months in retreat, changed their names, meditate for hours a day, and do right-livelihood type work. But growing your vegetables is an obvious signal in my community, very time consuming, quite boring,a bit expensive, and obvious signals about health, environmental consciousness and non-materialism. Sadly, my veg patch is a mess, but planting it over would probably signal having completely given up on these attributes.

Zla'od 2017-09-12

Brilliant article, and hits very close to home. (My Buddhist affiliation began in 1990 / 1991.)

Many of the same observations could be made about the Baha’i religion, which attracted upper-middle / upper class “Episcopalian” types from about 1898 to the 1960s, then hippies later. Major differences:

(1) the Baha’is have a solid, inflexible hierarchy (think Mormonism), while the Buddhists are very decentralized

(2) the Baha’is promote a well-defined mix of “liberal” social values (e.g. anti-racism, some feminist rhetoric) alongside a “conservative” personal ethic (e.g. no alcohol, sex only within heterosexual marriage) which is policed to some extent. Buddhism imposes no real restrictions on belief or behavior (and I have not experienced much in the way of peer pressure, either), but primarily attracts Western liberals / leftists.

(3) the Baha’is maintain a clearly-defined (but easy to cross) boundary between members and non-members, whereas anybody can call themselves a Buddhist. A few Buddhist groups are considered heretical by other Buddhist groups. ALL Baha’i groups other than the main group are considered heretical by that group.

It’s hard to get reliable membership information from the Baha’is, but like Western Buddhism, they seem to have peaked during the 1990s. This is awkward for them, because they generally expect their religion to continue growing until it conquers the world, so to speak. Buddhists, by contrast, entertain no such expectations.

Nemo Outis 2018-03-19

This is provincial, meandering, and naive.

In the first, you haven’t sufficiently experienced the places you’ve lived or lived sufficiently diverse places. You misrepresent both the dynamics of political identity and the interactions between divided social classes.

For the second, take a course that will discipline your writing. You make arbitrary, unsupported, and worst of all unnecessary claims throughout this work. I thought you were at least justifying some of those in footnotes, but was disappointed. Instead, you usually wandered further from your point.

And for the last, diversify your experiences and education. Find works that oppose the views you believe yourself to currently hold. Read them closely. Compose counterarguments them (or amend your beliefs, but it’s important to be realistic about these things) write reviews that address the points those opposing works make. And subject your argument to the least agreeable and most rigorous crucible you can find.

That said, this piece is better than silence or private thought. It is good that you have wrote it. Please do better. Perhaps you already have.

Assistant Village Idiot 2018-03-22

This looks like a spam criticism, because it provides no identifiers that it is directed to the actual article. And “It is good that you have wrote it” is rather suspicious. I didn’t know there were such things as generic criticisms sent out blindly. I can’t imagine why someone would bother.

David Chapman 2018-03-22

Oh, that’s an interesting possibility that hadn’t occurred to me!

I thought it was just content-free superciliousness from someone with ego problems. I considered deleting it as useless and potentially irritating to readers, but I don’t have time to moderate comments currently, so I didn’t bother. (Probably I should turn commenting off here, as I have on my other sites.)

There’s no links, which suggests it’s not spam… but maybe it was a failing attempt at spam by an incompetent…

I guess I’ll leave it here as an entertaining minor mystery!

So long as they have the correct opinions...

thomas tulinsky 2021-12-08

This is a great line!

Note 7: This is because Buddhism is commited to inclusivity and accepts everyone. So long as they have the correct opinions about all topics.

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