Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra

Many of the Western creators of Consensus Buddhism say in their autobiographies that they went to Asia because they were disgusted with the sex-and-drugs hedonism of hippie culture. Coming from Protestant cultures, they were looking for a system of self-restraint, but they had rejected Christianity.

Traditional Buddhism is renunciate, not Protestant, and renunciation is also unacceptable to Americans. But Buddhist values had already been partially replaced with Protestant ones in the Asian modernist forms the Consensus founders encountered in the 1960s and 70s. They could, and did, continue that process.

The lay precepts against sexual misconduct and intoxication may have come at first as welcome repudiations of hippie self-indulgence. However, as we’ll see on the next page, they had to be loosened, reinterpreted, and effectively negated to function in America.

Continue reading “Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra”

How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics

Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality.

So, where did it come from, and why?

The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant scriptural quotes, said “compassion” a lot, and declared victory.

This replacement occurred in roughly three phases:

  1. Around 1850-1900, Victorian Christian morality replaced traditional morality in modernist Asian Buddhism. This hybrid was successfully re-exported to the West, but is now unknown in America, because Victorianism is considered old fashioned. It’s still influential in Asia.1
  2. Around 1900-1960, Western political theories were imported into Buddhist countries, and were declared “the Buddhist ethics of social responsibility.” This was the root of “engaged Buddhism,” one of the two main strands of current Western “Buddhist ethics.”
  3. In the 1990s, the recently-invented secular morality of the New Left, identity politics, and ecological consciousness was declared “Buddhist” by Consensus Buddhism. This is mostly what counts as “Buddhist ethics” in the West today, although most Asian Buddhists would reject it utterly.

So what?

Well, the question is: are we stuck with this stuff? Of course, advocates of “Buddhist ethics” would say “This is what The Buddha taught, so it is Eternal Truth!” But the correct answer is: No, ordinary people just made it up, over the past hundred and fifty years, to solve problems of meaningness that appeared newly in their times.

So, facing our own new problems of meaningness, we can—and should—invent something different. And since “Buddhist ethics” is half of Consensus Buddhism, this implies an extensive reinvention of Buddhism for the West.

Continue reading “How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics”

Buddhist morality is Medieval

Traditional Buddhist morality developed in feudal theocratic cultures. Mostly, it is typical for such societies: similar to what you’d find in Medieval Europe or the nastier parts of the contemporary Islamic world. It is crude, arbitrary, patriarchal, and often cruel.

In Europe, Enlightenment rationalism enabled smart people to say “wait, that’s nasty and stupid.” Christian morality gradually became less barbarous, and evolved into secular ethics.

Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional morality with Victorian Christian morality in the late 1800s, and with leftish secular morality in the the 1980s. (The two pages after this one discuss that.) The result is that modern “Buddhist ethics” has no similarity to traditional Buddhist morality, much of which would horrify Western Buddhists.

Continue reading “Buddhist morality is Medieval”

Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system

On this page and the next, I will argue that traditional Buddhism has no ethical value for liberal, educated Westerners. There is no “ancient wisdom of the Buddha” to draw on when constructing a modern Buddhist ethics. That is why modern “Buddhist ethics” has nothing in common with the tradition.

These two pages may seem like an attack on traditional Buddhism, but my intent is only to dispel a modern illusion. The myth of “Buddhist ethics” has obscured, for Westerners, most of what Buddhism has to offer. It needs to be cleared away to make Buddhism visible again.

These pages might be misunderstood, at this point, as the core of the series on “Buddhist ethics.” They’re not; the uselessness of traditional Buddhist morality is just a background fact. We need it to understand why modern “Buddhist ethics” had to be invented as a replacement.

Continue reading “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system”

“Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics

So-called “Buddhist ethics” is just contemporary American leftish secular morality.

By “Buddhist ethics” (with scare quotes) I mean what is taught by Consensus Buddhism.

For several years, I have repeatedly asked:

Is there any significant issue on which “Buddhist ethics” disagrees with contemporary Western leftish secular ethics?

So far, no one has said “Yes, if you are an American Buddhist, you should do so-and-so, whereas leftish secular Americans think you should do the opposite.”1

Doesn’t that strike you as remarkable?

Continue reading ““Buddhist ethics” is not Buddhist ethics”

“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud

“Buddhist ethics” is neither Buddhist nor ethics.

“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud: a fabrication created to deceive, passed off as something valuable that it is not, for the benefit of its creators and promoters.

“Buddhist ethics” is actually a collection of self-aggrandizing strategies for gaining social status within the left side of the Western cultural divide.

“Buddhist ethics” actively obstructs Buddhists’ moral and personal development. It has also deliberately obscured—and sometimes forcefully suppressed—most of Buddhism.

“Buddhist ethics” is gravely ill and will probably die shortly. In fact, I hope to drive a stake through its heart now. Its demise will open the door to new possibilities for Western Buddhism.

Some might find these statements surprising; possibly even “controversial.” Perhaps not all readers will immediately agree. Over the next several posts, I’ll explain why they are accurate, and why they matter.

Continue reading ““Buddhist ethics” is a fraud”

Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly

Some spiritual facts are now obvious:

  • Experiences of awe and wonder, in appreciation of nature or of human arts, can be profoundly religious and transformative.
  • Creative work, making useful and beautiful things to aid and delight others, is a noble and fulfilling spiritual activity.
  • Romantic love and sex—although sometimes sources of great suffering—may be the most valuable spiritual aspects of our lives.
  • Fully experiencing emotions transforms them from a source of trouble into a source of wisdom.
  • Women are at least as naturally religious as men.

These facts must be central principles of any religion that hopes to function in this century.

Continue reading “Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly”

On criticizing fellow Buddhists

When I was about 25, I had published some scientific papers, and was getting to be known in an international academic community. I was full of piss and vinegar; testosterone, rebellion, and altogether too much cleverness. I wanted to tear down an intellectual establishment that seemed corrupt, hidebound, and befogged by holy dogmas and hidden assumptions. I was quite rude, in print, to researchers whose ideas I thought were WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Then I started going to conferences, and I met many of the scientists who I previously knew only from their academic publications. Most of them were nothing like what I had imagined based on their work. Their personalities did not seem to match up with their writings.

I remember in particular meeting one researcher whose papers I had savaged. He was kind and friendly. It turned out that we had a shared love of birds, and we had an enjoyable discussion of corvids [ravens and their allies]. I felt quite ashamed, but also grateful for having learned something.

I’ve just been at the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference, and had something of the same experience. Some Buddhist leaders, whose work I’ve criticized on this blog, are clearly good guys. Seeing them in person, or interacting with them, gives a very different sense than their writing.

Continue reading “On criticizing fellow Buddhists”

One Dharma, Zero Tantra

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma claims in places to be a “unified theory of Dharma” that combines “all the lineages of Buddhism.”

The book begins with a two-page endorsement from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is widely (mis)understood in the West as the Pope of Tibetan Buddhism. The most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its inclusion of Buddhist Tantra.

However, One Dharma is 100% Tantra-free.

It’s hard to imagine the Pope of Rome endorsing a book by a Muslim about the unity of all the Abrahamic religions. But it would be particularly hard to imagine if the book never mentioned any distinctively Catholic doctrine.

It might seem that something odd is going on here… But in fact a Tantra-free Western Buddhism is precisely what the Dalai Lama would want to endorse.

Continue reading “One Dharma, Zero Tantra”

One Dharma. Whose?

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism is a manifesto of Consensus Buddhism.

It is also an introduction to Buddhism, and a practice manual; but I am interested only in the manifesto aspect. This is not a review; I am not concerned with evaluating the book as something that might be useful to someone now. Rather, I treat it as a historical document. Its significance is as a chess-move in the political program of a movement that is now—I hope—over. (And, as it was published ten years ago, Goldstein’s own view has probably evolved since.)

Introducing the cast

One Dharma is an oddly incoherent book. It is written in three different voices, with quite different agendas.

Most of the book is a practical introduction to Consensus Buddhism (which Goldstein calls “One Dharma”), written for beginners. Its author is a warm, wise, mature mentor. I’ll call him “Goldstein.” Goldstein’s excellence as a meditation teacher shows clearly, and I like and respect him, although the Buddhism he teaches does not appeal to me.

The book’s Introduction is a manifesto, proclaiming a political dogma. Its audience seems to be American teachers of Buddhism. I’ll call the booming, triumphant voice of its author “Goldstein.” I don’t care for him much.

The third voice, “joseph,” is prone to confusion, anxiety, and doubt. He is honest about not being able to make sense of Buddhism—unlike Goldstein—and that is to his credit. His audience is probably just the author himself; it’s not clear what use joseph could be to anyone else.

This combination makes the book pretty incoherent. I would like to write about just Goldstein’s manifesto. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely separate it from the other two threads.

Continue reading “One Dharma. Whose?”