The essence of all religions?

Some people think it goes something like this:

“Through social and cultural conditioning, we each build a false self—an ego—and imagine that is who we really are.

This ego is a harmful illusion that prevents us from perceiving reality as it truly is.

Meditation gradually strips away the layers of ego. Buried deep within, we find our true selves.

This true self is radiant, pure, undivided, perfectly simple.

Our true self is none other than Ultimate Reality itself—or is directly, intimately, organically connected with that Eternal Absolute Infinite, which is the entire universe.

The essence of all religions is the transformative perception of that magical connection to all beings. It is the profound, non-conceptual experience of the Oneness of the universe.

This is heart and the path and the goal of Buddhism: the mystical experience of enlightenment.”

This is an attractive story, with a compelling logic. It is accepted without question in “Consensus Buddhism.”

I think it’s entirely wrong. It’s also almost right—so it’s a bit hard to see how wrong it is.

I think it matters that it is wrong. This is not just a matter of definitions, or sterile intellectual debate.

Here’s a really short version of why it’s wrong:

  • There isn’t a true self. (This is as close to an essence as most versions of Buddhism have got…)
  • There isn’t an Absolute Infinite, either. (That’s not what emptiness, or nirvana, or other Buddhist abstractions are.)
  • Most Buddhists, for the past couple thousand years, would have disagreed that mystical experience is the essence of Buddhism. Most would probably not have recognized it as being Buddhist at all.

Here’s a really short version of why it matters:

  • This story leads to meditating in a particular way. Other stories lead to other ways of meditating.
  • If your meditation aims at perceiving and unifying two things that don’t exist, you’ll be disappointed.
  • Worse, you are likely to miss what meditation actually can provide.
  • And, this misunderstanding leads you to dismiss valuable parts of Buddhism because they don’t produce mystical experiences.

This may take a whole lotta ’splainin’. The next several posts in this blog series will look at how different understandings of meditation have shaped Consensus Buddhism.

The mystical story is a modern, Western one. The reason many find it attractive and compelling is that it seems to solve the fundamental “problems of modernity.” It can also be found in some Buddhisms, which is part of why Buddhism is popular in the West.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to explain the “problems of modernity,” and why mystical experience seems like a solution. I’ll end by saying just a little about a better alternative.

The disenchantment and reenchantment of the world

1. Tradition: meaning is external and eternal

Before modernity, there was tradition. The traditional world was full of magic and meaning. Meaning was out there: in gods, demons, spirits, sacred places, idols, and saints. Meaning was unquestioned and unchanging.

In the traditional world, your identity was automatically defined by your fixed place in the eternal cosmic order.

In traditional Christianity, there was God, who was a bad-tempered guy in the sky; and people had souls, which survived death.

Traditional religion—in Christianity and Buddhism—consisted of ethics, rituals, and beliefs. No doubt people “had religious experiences,” but that was not what religion was about.

2. Modernity: meaning is internal and insecure

In the modern world, science and rationality leached the magic and meaning out of the material world. According to science, there is no awesome guy in the sky. The mind is the activity of the brain, and ceases at death. There’s no evidence of any afterlife.

Religious beliefs were all proven false. Ritual—an external activity—became meaningless. Waving your arms about and chanting gibberish did nothing.

The sacred, the numinous, the transcendant—they died. The glory of God’s creation was reduced to commodities to be bought and sold. The cosmic order collapsed. Humanity was alienated from nature and the universe-as-a-whole.

Meaning retreated from the external world to the internal world. Meaning became subjective, psychological. That meant people gave the world meaning, rather than the world giving us meaning.

Without an external cosmic order, people had to give each other meanings. Your own meaning—your self—was no longer given by God. You had to construct it out of partial meanings given by family, school, culture and society.

The traditional world had known only one, local, unquestioned culture. The modern world brought disagreement: diverging beliefs about what was true, what things meant, and what was right or wrong.

The defining feature of modernity was the search for a way to resolve those disagreements. Some foundational truth, some solid ground, was wanted to provide certainty.

Unfortunately, none could be found. Increasingly people realized that subjective meaning was no meaning at all. The threat of nihilism loomed: maybe reality was completely meaningless, ethics were just pointless social rules, and there was no purpose in living.

Meanwhile, the self, conditioned by increasingly complicated, dissonant social and cultural forces, became complex and divided against itself. This self, this ego, could not provide any stable meaning for the world. Increasingly it became itself a problem, an obstacle.

This lead to a search for a way to overcome, to transcend, the ego. Only by escaping social conditioning could one become a true individual.

These were the “problems of modernity.” They produced a pervasive, diffuse anxiety and alienation; a sense of lack, which led to constant questing.

I’m using the past tense here because, for some, the modern world ended late in the last century. For us, the problems of modernity are no longer compelling. Others feel them as keenly as ever. This explains a lot about Buddhism in 2011. But, we mostly won’t get to that until near the end of this blog series.

3. Mysticism: restoring certainty to meaning

Mysticism offers a way out.

Mysticism finds certainty in direct experience, which cannot be contradicted. This experience is non-conceptual, non-rational, ineffable, so it cannot be challenged with rational logic.

Psychology can probe the false self. Science can say things about thoughts, beliefs, cognition, even emotions. The true self, the deep self, cannot be found by external science. It has no characteristics. It is immune to empirical criticism.

The Absolute, the Ground of Being, cannot be found by science either. It is too pervasive, too ethereal, too simple. You cannot find it with a microscope or telescope. But you can experience it. And then you know. In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.

Because the Absolute is none other than the entire universe, it animates all things. It gives all things meaning. With mystic insight, you realize that everything is sacred. The magic of the world is restored. This magic is not the gross external violations of physics that science denies. It is the shimmering numinosity that can be perceived only with the awakened eye.

Because each of us is totally connected with this cosmic source, we never need to feel alienated from the natural world, or from each other.

In discovering your true nature, you are freed from the arbitrary fetters of society and culture. You become the limitless individual that you always really were.

There’s just one problem. How do you make all that stuff happen? Perhaps some rare, special people realize their true nature spontaneously. But for most people, this seems an unattainable fantasy.

No ordinary method will do. What is needed is some kind of magic that, like an electric spark jumping a gap to complete a circuit, connects the true self to the Absolute. Some method that—like the true self and the Absolute—is perfectly simple, profoundly internal yet encompassing the universe, devoid of characteristics.

In the late 1800s, the West discovered Hindu and Buddhist meditation with huge excitement. Here, it seemed, was the missing method.

Christian salvation without talking snakes and telepathic zombies

The mystical interpretation of Buddhism makes sense because it is an abstract version of Christian salvation.

To be a Christian, you have to believe that you suffer because a talking snake convinced your ancestors to eat a magic fruit, and that the way to end suffering is to communicate telepathically with a zombie.

By 1800, it had become impossible for educated people to believe this mythology. The German Romantic Idealists invented an influential form of mysticism as a demythologized version of Protestant Christianity.

The “true self” is the soul, which yearns to find the Absolute. The Absolute is a God which is no longer a guy in the sky, but which remains all-powerful and all-knowing, and is the source of everything that is good.

For Protestant Christianity, your job is to bring your soul into the right relationship with God. If you succeed, your soul returns to God after death. Mysticism wants to accomplish that before dying. Then the true self will be found to be eternal—because it is none other than the Absolute itself.

In Christian contemplation, you search your soul for for hidden impulses to sin, and for signs of God’s grace. In Protestant Buddhism, meditation is also taught as a close examination of one’s self. You examine your experience to find the kleshas, and hope beneath them to discover the luminous true self.

Protestant Buddhism bases its understanding of powerful meditation experiences—kensho, sotapatti, whatever—on the experience of radical conversion or “rebirth” in Christianity, in which you find God within yourself.

Buddhism without mysticism

I reject the mystical interpretation of Buddhism. Not because it’s not Buddhist; you can find something like it in some traditional brands of Buddhism. I reject it because I don’t believe there is a false self, a true self, or an Absolute.

That’s because we never were divided from the world. The chasm between self and other, which mysticism tries to leap, was never there.

When meditation is thought of as an examination of the self, of inner experience, it creates the problem it is supposed to solve.

There are other ways of understanding meditation.

Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.

More about that later.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Vipassana meditation is the most Buddhist thing in “Consensus Buddhism.” This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.

It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it.

Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods.

Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. I am not a Theravadin, and don’t practice any of these methods, so I have no opinion about that.

I’m also not trying to prove that modern vipassana is “inauthentic.” Coming from Tibetan Buddhism, this rapid innovation, based on practical experiments, is slightly shocking for me. But as a scientist and engineer, it’s also inspiring. I am happy to regard all of it as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation.

Records from 1800s Thailand and Burma are somewhat sketchy, and details of the reinvention of vipassana are still an area of active historical research. However, you can verify all the facts presented in this post in the sources I cite.

Why did Theravada reinvent vipassana around 1900?

What I want to explore is the context in which modern vipassana developed. Two things stand out:

  • Asian Theravada repeatedly reinvented meditation under the influence of Western ideas.

In my last post, I described how Thai Theravada was Westernized under the kings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Similar Buddhist modernization occurred in Sri Lanka and Burma, the other two places meditation was reinvented. In the case of Thailand and Sri Lanka, there’s evidence that meditation was first reinvented because of Western influence. It’s known definitely that Asians, influenced by Western ideas, extensively revised vipassana methods during the 1900s.

Based on that, we can ask: how have Western ideas about meditation affected the new methods, and the ways they are explained?

  • Theravada meditation was reinvented by guys who were into extreme asceticism.

Knowing that, we can wonder whether it’s the best practice for people who aren’t ascetics.

How do you reinvent vipassana?

Perhaps many people were trying to figure out how to do vipassana in the late 1800s. Only four succeeded. They all started from descriptions in the Pali scriptures. The most detailed are in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and the Anapanasati Sutta.

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in.

The people who reinvented vipassana tried to actually do what the scriptures said. That wasn’t a possibility seriously considered before; no one was seriously attempting to reach nirvana. The idea that you could read scripture and try to figure out what it meant was one of the Western-influenced 1800s Protestant Buddhist innovations.

Reinventing vipassana was difficult. It took each of the reinventors many years of trial-and-error experimentation before they came up with methods they considered worked. Their biographers emphasize what a hard time they had.

The vipassana scriptures are vague, and they contradict each other. Proponents of different vipassana systems consider different suttas authoritative. They disagree strongly about which is most important, and how to interpret it.

If you read the Satipatthana Sutta, the most-used one, and if you know how to meditate, you can say “yeah, parts of that are a pretty good description of what we do.” (Other parts are nothing like what people do now. I think that’s important, as I’ll explain in a later post.) If you had no idea what meditation was, the Sutta would not seem like much of a guide.

The methods the various reinventors came up with were different from each other. Quite possibly they are all unlike the way vipassana was practiced before the method was lost—in ways that probably reflect Western influence. I return to that point in a later post, too.

Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka

Anagarika Dharmapala was born in 1864, the son of a wealthy Sri Lankan businessman. Sri Lanka was a British colony them, and he was educated at British Christian mission schools.

As a teenager, he was interested in Western occultism. In 1884, at age 20, he met Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a mystical “philosophy” that borrowed heavily from German Romantic Idealism. He was much taken with her, and vice versa; he regarded her as his principal teacher for the rest of her life. He wanted to study Western occultism with her, but she told him to learn Pali instead, because in the Pali scriptures he would find everything he was looking for.

Dharmapala, at Blavatsky’s instruction, set up the Sri Lankan branch of the Theosophical Society. Both considered that its job was to reinforce Buddhism against Christian missionary influence.

This is highly ironic. With Buddhism in Sri Lanka mostly dead, Dharmapala looked to a Westerner for answers to his spiritual issues. But Blavatsky had come to Asia because she imagined the secret to solving the spiritual crisis of Western culture was there. Blavatsky had no idea what was in the Pali scriptures, but she “intuited” that they must have the answer. Particularly, she imagined that “meditation” was the practical key. But what was “meditation”?

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of Dharmapala says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.”

Eventually, he decided to start meditating anyway. He based his practice on texts he had found, mainly the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhimagga. Presumably his ideas about meditation were influenced by Blavatsky’s, however, and by the methods of Christian prayer he had learned at school. Later, he received some brief instruction from a Burmese teacher in India.

“Dharmapala’s advocacy of meditation practice and the availability of modern translations of these three texts did much to foster Sri Lankan interest in meditation.” [Fronsdal, cited below]

However, his method is probably extinct, or insignificant. Since the late 1950s, the Mahasi method (discussed below) has been dominant in Sri Lanka. And, Sri Lankan Buddhism has not had much influence on the West.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Gombrich & Obeyeskere, Buddhism Transformed.

Bhikkhu Sangharakshita, Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch. (This was the same Sangharakshita who founded the Triratna Buddhist Community.)

The Maha Bodhi, Volumes 98-99 (available on Google Books).

Tricycle, “Anagarika Dharmapala.”

The Thai lineage

King Mongkut was the major reformer of Thai Buddhism (as explained in my last post). His reforms were based on Western ideas. He believed that meditation was important, but was unable to find anyone who could teach him a method he found plausible.

The only meditation methods available then were “called vichaa aakhom, or incantation knowledge; [they] involved initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers.” This seems to have been a mixture of tantra (Hindu and/or Buddhist) and Thai folk animism. “They rarely mentioned nirvana except as an entity to be invoked for shamanic rites.”

Mongkut rejected this “meditation.” The Pali scriptures—to which he insisted everyone should return—say that the goal of buddhism is nirvana, attained through the practice of vipassana. Vipassana was, as far as Mongkut could find out, lost in mid-1800s Thailand.

He and his students tried to reinvent vipassana based on scriptural explanations, but he considered that they had failed.

Mongkut founded a monastic movement called Dhammayuttika, which emphasized strict adherence to vinaya (the code of conduct for monks).

It was Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, born in 1870, who developed the Thai vipassana method. Mun was a Dhammayuttika monk. I suspect it was Mongkut’s insistence on the importance of vipassana that led Mun to his discoveries, but I don’t have direct evidence of that.

His main teacher was Ajahn Sao Kantasilo. Sao taught a meditation method that consisted simply of repeating the word “Buddho.” I have not been able to discover who his teacher was, or where he got this method. I don’t know if it has any basis in Buddhist scripture or earlier practice; I haven’t found any.

Ajahn Mun remained devoted to Ajahn Sao throughout his life, but Sao was unable to answer most of his questions about meditation, and Mun had doubts about the “Buddho” method. Sao, according to Mun’s foremost student, was “not a competent teacher.” Mun set off on his own, looking for someone who could actually teach him vipassana. He spent nearly two decades wandering around Thailand, Laos, and Burma, but never found anyone.

Ajahn Mun gradually developed his own vipassana method, starting in the 1890s, with the main breakthrough apparently between 1911 and 1914. He experimented with various techniques, developed what worked, and dropped what didn’t. According to his biographies, some key ideas came to him in visions (described in detail). Presumably his method was also based partly on his reading of scriptural explanations.

Ajahn Mun had two main students, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. Both had Western students, but Chah was far more influential.

Ajahn Chah actually only spent one week with Ajahn Mun. He developed his own style of practice that is more Westerner-friendly.

Ajahn Chah was the primary teacher for Jack Kornfield, among many other well-known Western vipassana teachers.

Sao, Mun, Maha Bua, and Chah all practiced an extreme form of asceticism called dhutanga, which goes beyond even strict adherence to vinaya. They considered that dhutanga and vipassana were closely linked. The point of both was to violently destroy all desires through extreme effort and austerity.

Although the Thai method is still taught, the “easier” Burmese Mahasi method (described below) is more popular in the U.S., and even in Thailand.


Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, “Ajaan Sao’s Teaching.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Customs of the Noble Ones.”

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Biography of the Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera.

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera: Meditation Master.

Brooke Schedneck, “Comparing Forest Masters’ Techniques and Implications for International Meditators.”

Brooke Schedneck, “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Luangda Maha Bua.”

The Mahasi (“New Burmese”) method

The “Mahasi method” is the most-practiced vipassana nowadays. It is considered faster and easier than the Thai method, and than the other Burmese method I describe later. Proponents of those methods consider it bogus, however.

It was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), but does have antecedents.

Mahasi’s teacher was Mingun Sayadaw (1868-1955), also known as U Narada. Many sources count Mingun as the originator of the lineage.

Mingun’s teacher was Ale-Tawya Sayadaw, whose teacher was The-lon Sayadaw. According to Strong Roots, cited below, “The-Lon Sayadaw… put this textual guidance [the Visuddhimagga] into practice without a personal teacher to guide [him] in mindfulness practice” (p. 110). This is based oral history from a traditional Burmese monk in The-lon Sayadaw’s lineage. I can’t find dates for The-lon or Ale-Tawya.

It appears that The-lon Sayadaw developed some method based on the Visuddhimagga, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mingun, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mahasi.

As background, in the late 1800s, Burma, under King Mindon, tried to follow the same path of modernization that successfully held off the British in Thailand. It failed, and the British seized it in 1885, and ran the place until 1948. So Western ideas were common in Burma throughout the period the Mahasi lineage developed.

Mahasi made several innovations. The most important was skipping samatha and the development of the jhanas (concentration states) and going directly to vipassana. He thought that samatha would take care of itself, if you practice vipassana correctly. The jhanas are not ends in themselves, so bypassing samatha is a practical shortcut.

Mahasi taught that one should aim directly for sotapatti, a first taste of nirvana. Experiencing sotapatti guarantees you cannot be reborn other than as a human or in heaven, and no more than seven more times. He said that sotapatti could reached by newcomers in a month.

Mahasi aimed his teaching particularly at lay people, rather than monks. He imported from the West the “meditation center” idea (not a traditional Asian institution). He eliminated ritual and minimized textual study.

Mahasi’s best-known Asian student was Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003). Munindra was also a student of S.N. Goenka, from the other Burmese lineage. Munindra therefore joined the two Burmese vipassana systems. Munindra was the teacher of Dipa Ma.

Many influential American teachers, including most of the main figures in what I call “Consensus Buddhism,” were students of Mahasi, Munindra, and/or Dipa Ma. They include:

  • Joseph Goldstein
  • Jack Kornfield (who first studied Ajahn Chah’s Thai method)
  • Lama Surya Das
  • Sharon Salzberg
  • Sylvia Boorstein

These Western teachers have, of course, further modified the combined vipassana systems.


Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America. Much useful history here.

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Mahasi Sayadaw, “Satipatthana Vipassana: Criticisms and Replies.”

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. Has some information on Mahasi by his best-known Western student.

Brooke Schedneck, “The Role of Samadhi in Meditation Centers and the Forest Tradition” and “Book Review: The Experience of Samadhi by Richard Shankman.” On samatha vs. vipassana, and differences between the various vipassana methods.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West,” “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Treasures of the Theravada: Recovering the Riches of Our Tradition.” Insightful articles on the ways vipassana has been adapted in the West. Gil Fronsdal is a student of Jack Kornfield, but not afraid to point out problems with the Consensus approach.

The Ledi lineage (also Burmese)

This lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923).

Little is known about how Ledi Sayadaw began to practice vipassana. The Wikipedia says that “he learned the technique of vipassana still being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills,” and this line has been copied all over the internet. As far as I can tell, it is wrong. I can’t find that information in any reliable source. It is contradicted by Strong Roots, cited above, which quotes a traditional monk from the Sagaing Hills as saying Ledi Sayadaw developed his method on his own, based only on texts. (The Sagaing Hills are a major royal temple complex, on the outskirts of Mandalay, then the capital. They are not remote or obscure, and if vipassana was commonly taught there, it seems that would be well-documented.)

Ledi Sayadaw’s biography on S.N. Goenka’s site says “although we do not have any definitive information, it seems likely that [1882-1885] was the period when he began practicing Vipassana in the traditional Burmese way: with attention to Anapana (respiration) and vedana (sensation).” S.N. Goenka is the main teacher in the Ledi linage now, and presumably if he knew of a source for Ledi Sayadaw’s method, he would say so. “The traditional Burmese way” was probably lost sometime long before 1882.

The Ledi method was extensively revised by his grand-student U Ba Khin (1899-1971) in the 1950s. U Ba Khin was a lay man, and the head accountant for the Burmese government. According to Sharf (cited below), “U Ba Khin apparently experimented with different techniques throughout his career, all of which focused primarily on bodily sensations.” The resulting differences from Ledi’s method are large enough that many sources refer to “the U Ba Khin method.” Like Mahasi, he removed most traditional aspects of Buddhism in order to teach lay people, and aimed directly for transformational experience.

S.N. Goenka teaches U Ba Khin’s method.

Lama Surya Das, one of the main founders of “Consensus Buddhism,” was a student of Goenka (among many others).

[Update, November 2013:] I’ve found a recent journal article, “On saints and wizards,” by Patrick Pranke, that traces the Burmese revival of vipassana back to the mid-1700s. This paper confirms that vipassana had been entirely lost prior to then, but provides earlier history than I had previously known about. Ledi Sayadaw learned vipassana from “U Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883) who was notable for his avid interest in western science and efforts to reconcile this new perspective with abhidhamma.” Before that the exact lineage is unclear, but it appears that from-scripture reinvention began with Medawi (1728–1816) who published his first vipassana manual in 1756.

[Another update, February 2014:] Published late last year, Erik Braun’s The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw seems to contradict Pranke’s article. I haven’t read the book, but from the part available free on Amazon, we have: “he did not get his understanding of meditation from a particular teacher, nor did he find it in a book. He developed his presentation of meditation himself…” These experts seemingly disagree in this area of current historical research.


Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw.

Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West.”

Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Later developments

The four lineages I’ve described above originated independently, and around the same time.

Later in the 1900s, several other meditation methods were invented within Asian Theravada.

One of these, due to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), has had some influence in the West. He developed his meditation method based on the Anapanasati Sutta (rejecting the Satipatthana Suttas as vague and muddled) and extensive personal experimentation.

Buddhadasa was a classic Protestant Buddhist modernizer, emphasizing rationality, universalism, scriptural authority, and meditation, eliminating ritual and supernatural beliefs. He actually dissociated himself from Buddhism altogether, preaching “No Religion”: the idea that the mystical core of all religions is the same, and found in meditation. This idea is common in Consensus Buddhism now.

Two methods seem to have had no influence on the West as yet. They are the quasi-tantric methods of the Dhammakaya movement, and the idiosyncratic teaching of Sunlun Sayadaw. These are quite different from any of the others.

Theravada, apparently, remains open to major innovations in meditation technique.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Suchira Payulpitack, Buddhadasa’s movement : an analysis of its origins, development, and social impact.

Brooke Schedneck, “Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Modern Buddhism” and “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.”

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Do you know the Rogers & Hammerstein musical The King and I? Or the movie Anna and the King of Siam?

They are about Mongkut, the King of Siam. More than any other single person, he invented Western Buddhism. The films don’t exactly mention that, but they do explain quite a lot about why the Buddhism we have is the way it is.

Jack Kornfield is one of the main creators of what I call “Consensus Buddhism”—the Western Buddhist mainstream. When he got to Thailand in 1967, the Buddhism he found had already been extensively Westernized—largely thanks to King Mongkut. Thai Buddhism spoke to Kornfield, because it was designed partly to address Western problems.

Jack Kornfield is, in fact, a great-great-grand-student of King Mongkut. Kornfield’s main teacher was Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah was a student of Ajahn Mun, who invented vipassana meditation, which is the main “Buddhist” thing in Consensus Buddhism.

Mun’s preceptor was a student of Mongkut. It was Mongkut who had the radical idea that Buddhists ought to meditate—if only anyone knew how.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

A totally awesome dude

Besides inventing Western Buddhism, Mongkut was just a Totally Awesome Dude. I want to be him when I grow up.

When he was born, in 1804, his grandfather Rama I was king. Rama I founded the kingdom of Siam—now called Thailand. Rama I began to modernize the country, opening it to Western influence. He allowed in traders and Christian missionaries. He had parts of the Pali scriptures—the holy texts of Theravada Buddhism—translated into the Thai language. That was a first, and an important innovation, because only tiny fraction of the monks could read Pali. Most had no idea what their own holy books said.

Mongkut ordained as a monk in 1824, and remained a monk for 27 years. The first thing he did was to go to a monastery that supposedly specialized in teaching meditation. After less than a year, he realized that this “mediation” was bogus, and left. (I’ll write more about that in another post.) Then he spent several years studying the scriptures.

In the light of scripture, he found bogosity everywhere. All the Siamese monks were ignoring the vinaya. Vinaya is the part of scripture that lays out the rules for what monks are supposed to do. There’s 227 of them. Supposedly they come straight from the Buddha.

In traditional Buddhism, everywhere in Asia, most of the vinaya was ignored. It still is. It’s very holy and stuff, in theory; but monks actually follow other, unwritten rules, set by local institutional tradition. Currently, in Thailand, most monks pay attention to only 19 of the 227 vinaya rules, and take only eight really seriously.

Maybe there are good reasons for that. These might be sensible changes, due to circumstances being different than in the Buddha’s time. Or it might be a corruption, due to laziness. I don’t have an opinion—my own Buddhist lineage is totally non-monastic, so I don’t care what monks do.

Mongkut sure had an opinion. His opinion was that if Buddha said monks can’t eat after noon, that means monks can’t eat after noon. He formed a new order of monks who followed every goddamn one of the rules, to the letter.

He had another opinion. Siamese Buddhism was full of magic, gods and demons. That was bogus. That stuff was Hinduism, or superstition, not Buddhism. Anything not in the Pali scriptures wasn’t Buddhism. As a powerful monk, and later as king, he did everything he could to get rid of it.

Taking scripture, not oral tradition, as religious authority was a new idea in Buddhism. Historians think it’s due to the influence of Protestant Christian missionaries.

Mongkut spent much of his time with missionaries and traders. He got to be fluent in English, and learned Western science and Christian theology. He liked the rationality of Christian ethics, but thought its supernatural doctrines were absurd. He was close friends with a Catholic vicar, to whom he said “What you teach people to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish.”

Buddhism should be rational and scientific, he thought. Everyone in Siam thought the earth was flat. That was bogus. Western science convinced Mongkut that it was round. His opinion was, the Siamese needed to know that. He worked hard, through the rest of his life, to convince them.

Buddhist texts are very clear on the flatness of the earth. Here Mongkut established a fundamental principle of modern Buddhism: scripture trumps tradition, but science trumps scripture.

Mongkut had another opinion. Scripture said you had to practice vipassana to reach nirvana. Unfortunately, no one at that time knew how. He thought that was bogus. He seems to have encouraged his students to find out.

It’s good to be king

Mongkut became king, and disrobed, in 1851. He was not a dilly-dallier. He acquired hundreds of concubines, as quickly as possible. Being a monk is the way to nirvana, but if you are stuck being king instead, the job has its consolations.

Mongkut was brought to power by the pro-Western, modernist faction of the Siamese elite. He was not a dilly-dallier. He set out to modernize the country as fast as he could.

Siam was caught between two colonial powers: the British dominated Burma, Siam’s western neighbor; the French dominated Laos and Cambodia, to Siam’s north and east. Both wanted Siam, and would take it if they could.

Mongkut played the two off against each other; but he recognized that, in the worst case, Siam would be better off under British rule. The British, unlike the French, had gotten a bit squeamish about colonialism. To justify it, they had to pretend it was moral; a way of uplifting the lives of primitive natives who lacked the benefits of the modern world: the scientific worldview, industrial technology, a bureaucratic government, and a proper religion.

So Mongkut’s strategy was to allow British influence in Siam, but to try to show them that it was a modern country—and therefore could not be colonized. (This is a main theme in The King and I and Anna and the King of Siam.)

He imported British teachers to educate Siamese in Western ideas. He signed a free trade treaty with Britain, resulting in dramatic increases in commerce. He built modern infrastructure and began to industrialize. (For this he is apparently known as “The Father of Science and Technology” in Thailand.) He started to transform a feudal kingdom into a European-style nation-state. He increased state control over the Sangha, and promoted the reforms of Buddhism that would make it look like an acceptable “world religion” to the British.

Dying for Science

Theoretically, Mongkut was an absolute monarch, but in reality his power was limited by the traditionalist factions of the aristocracy and institutional Sangha.

In 1868, Mongkut used Western astronomy to calculate the exact time and place of a solar eclipse. He travelled there, with court officials, to demonstrate that “Science Works, Bitches”—and the “Buddhist” methods used by the powerful court astrologers don’t.

His calculations proved right; the astrologers were wrong. But, unfortunately, he got malaria on the trip, and died.

His oldest son Chulalongkorn was king next. Chulalongkorn reigned until 1910, and completed most of Mongkut’s modernization program. (The movies are about the relationship between Mongkut and Anna Leonowens, the English school teacher he hired to tutor his children. In the films, Leonownes’ liberal political teachings significantly influence Chulalongkorn’s ideas about right government. Historians are unsure whether that’s true.)

Mongkut’s strategy worked. Siam was one of the very few Asian countries to escape colonization.

Mongkut’s legacy: “Western Buddhism”

Mongkut’s reform of Buddhism is a classic case of the pattern of modernizations I’ve explained in my previous few posts:

Current “Consensus Buddhism” is based more on Thai Theravada than any other Buddhist source. That means that Mongkut’s transformation of traditional Siamese folk beliefs into a modern world religion is the most important example of the themes I’ve been writing about.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

It would be an exaggeration to say that “Zen” was invented as a defense against American gunboats. It would not be completely wrong, however.

This is a post in my Crumbling Buddhist Consensus series. Modernized Zen is one of the two main Buddhist sources for Consensus Western Buddhism. This post explains how and why Japan radically altered Zen to make it compatible with Western ideas.

Opening the Japanese oyster

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry took four state-of-the-art American warships into Tokyo harbor. They were powered by steam engines and armed with a devastating new weapon. Their Paixhans guns fired explosive shells: not solid metal cannon balls, but bombs that detonated on hitting their target. Perry gave a “shock and awe” demonstration, destroying several buildings on the harbor front.

Against this barbaric assault, Japan had no defense whatsoever.

For two centuries, it had maintained a policy of cultural isolation. Christian missionaries had arrived in the 1600s, and successfully converted many Japanese. When the Empress learned how Europe took the Americas, she correctly concluded that the missionaries were the first step in a strategy of colonization.

Japan banned Christianity. All Japanese were required to belong to, and financially support, a Buddhist temple, to prove they weren’t Christians.

To eliminate dangerous foreign ideas, nearly all contact with the outside world was prevented by force. This isolation successfully kept out Christianity. Unfortunately, it also kept out Western technology. In 1853, Japan had almost no guns, and those few were hopelessly obsolete. Perry could have leveled Tokyo, and there would have been nothing Japan could have done about it.

His four black ships defeated a glorious empire. Japan was forced to sign a series of humiliating treaties, on terms dictated by America. These ended Japan’s policy of isolation; Perry had “opened the Japanese oyster,” as American headlines put it. (Yum!) The unequal treaties gave Americans free trade access, the right to live in Japan, and the right for missionaries to teach Christianity. Other Western powers imposed similar treaties over the next few years.

These treaties were seen by both the West and Japan as first steps toward colonial domination.

Japan chooses modernism

The situation was critical; dire; intolerable. But what to do?

Step 1, obviously, was to get some Western-style warships. Just a year after Perry’s arrival, Japan had built its first: an astonishing feat, given a start from late-Medieval-level technology. Over the next few decades, Japan continually built and bought ever-more-powerful gunboats.

Unfortunately, it was always behind. Among the Western powers, warships were the main technology arms race during the second half of the 1800s. Japan fought a series of naval battles against Western powers in the 1850s and 1860s, and it was crushed every time.

The problem was that warships weren’t just an accidental discovery. They depended on Western technology, which depended on Western science, which depended on Western philosophy.

During the 1850s and 1860s, Japan’s elite was profoundly split over strategy:

  • Modernists argued that the only way to compete with the West was to adopt Western ideologies. Japan must transform itself into a Western power.
  • Conservatives argued that Japan’s cultural heritage, its values, were what made it great. To adopt Western ideologies would be to do the foreign devils’ work for them; to destroy everything that made Japan Japan.

In the late 1860s, this split broke into civil war. The modernists won, and took control of the country.

Japan modernized astonishingly quickly. Feudalism was replaced with a modern bureaucratic state. The traditional economy was replaced with capitalism. Late-Medieval technology was replaced with modern industry. The military, closely entwined with the government, was built up rapidly, and soon won wars against China, Russia, and Korea.

Japan adopted the European ideology of the nation-state, which required a single culture throughout its territory. Among other things, that meant the selection of a state religion. Up to this point, Japan had a confused mixture of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism, without a “true national religion in the manner of Western nations”. This was declared “a weakness in the Japanese national identity, placing it at a disadvantage to the Western powers.”

Abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni!

The modernists’ concession to traditionalism was the slogan “Japanese ethics, Western technology.” Japan’s essential national character, its inviolable fundamental values, would remain intact. Especially, Japan would not adopt Christianity.

The new state adopted Shinto as its official religion. Shinto would be the sacred carrier of Japaneseness. Buddhism, instead, was pretty much banned.

Up til then, the Buddhist institutional Sangha had immense social and economic power, due to the old requirement that all Japanese belong to and support a temple. These religious taxes were heavy, and widely resented. The Sangha had backed the losing, traditionalist side during the ’50s and ’60s. Eliminating Buddhism was popular with many ordinary people, and wiped out a hostile power base.

The anti-Buddhist movement was called haibutsu kishaku, which means “abolish Buddhism and destroy Shakyamuni.” Buddhism was declared to be “a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan’s need for scientific and technological advancement.” It was denounced as not really Japanese, but a foreign import. It was from China, a seemingly great empire that proved pathetically weak as the colonial powers carved it up in the 1840s and ’50s.

Most Buddhist temples were closed. Many were destroyed. Buddhist monks were forced to return to lay life or forcibly converted to Shinto. Countless Buddhist books and treasures were confiscated or burned.

The New Buddhism

Buddhism was saved, sort of, by a small group of Buddhists who had sided with the modernists during the 1850s and ’60s. They were intellectuals, educated at newly created Western-style universities, who saw value in both Buddhism and Western ideas.

They agreed that the Buddhist establishment had to be destroyed. Institutional Buddhism had “degenerated” into meaningless rituals and folk superstitions. But this was the fault of a corrupt Sangha, not Buddhism itself. Haibutsu kishaku was a purifying flame that would actually strengthen Buddhism in the long run.

They proposed that a “New Buddhism” (shin bukkyo) could be a powerful tool for the government in its drive to modernize and strengthen Japan. Their sales pitch succeeded; persecution of Buddhism ended. Imakita Kosen, one of the leaders of the New Buddhism movement, was made a Doctrinal Instructor at the Ministry of Doctrine, with power to reform the religion:

  • New Buddhism was supposedly scientific, empirical, and rational. It showed that Buddhism “actually anticipated modern scientific discoveries in areas as diverse as physics, astronomy, and psychology.” It taught the importance of the technological worldview to everyone.
  • Old Buddhism was infested with gods, spirits, monsters, and demons. New Buddhism rejected the supernatural.
  • New Buddhism also rejected the literal understanding of karma and rebirth. Those were superstitions.
  • The main job of Buddhist priests had been to perform rituals (especially funerals). New Buddhism devalued that.
  • The Sangha had been parasitic and self-interested. New Buddhism was socially responsible and socially engaged.
  • The Sangha had spent much of its energy on petty internal squabbles between Buddhist sects. New Buddhism was non-sectarian. It was a single, uniform religion for all people.
  • The Sangha had been remote from the people, concerned with pointless esoterica and imaginary after-death worlds. New Buddhism served ordinary people.
  • New Buddhism blurred the strict division between monks and lay people. It gave ordinary people access to practices—especially meditation—that had been reserved for the clergy.
  • New Buddhism was not a foreign import. Purged of alien influences, it was the highest expression of the Japanese national character.
  • As the holder of the sacred Japanese values—supposedly eternal but largely newly invented by the government—it was a way to impose state ideology on the masses.
  • New Buddhism was fiercely loyal to the state.
  • The limp girly-man pacifism of the old Buddhism was rejected. New Buddhism taught the sacred duty of Japan to go to war in order to bring correct ethics to the world.
  • Just as the Western powers exported Christianity to influence (and eventually subjugate) inferior peoples, Japan could export New Buddhism.
  • New Buddhism was, in fact, a universal “world religion.”
  • New Buddhism proposed, further, that Zen was the true, essential core of all religions—especially Christianity. Christianity was merely a confused approximation to Zen. If this idea could be made to stick, Japan could co-opt Christianity and turn Europeans’ missionary strategy against them.

If you’ve read my earlier post about Protestant reforms to Buddhism, you’ll recognize many of the items on this list. All across Asia, the re-making of Buddhism in the late 1800s included both Protestant and nationalist factors. Japan took the nationalism more seriously than most.

The New Buddhist reform had limited effect in Japan. There’s still a lot of pretty traditional Buddhism there now. However, the strategy of exporting New Buddhism to the West was successful. The Zen we have now is heavily influenced by it. That Zen was one of the main inputs to “Consensus Buddhism.”

(Of course, export Buddhism was not only motivated by cynical nationalism. No doubt all those involved also genuinely believed that they were bringing a better religion to Westerners, for our benefit.)

Exporting New Buddhism

Imakita Kosen’s dharma heir, and successor at the Ministry of Doctrine, was Soyen Shaku. In 1892, he wrote:

Religion is the only force in which the Western people know that they are inferior to the nations of the East… Let us wed the Great Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism] to Western thought… At Chicago next year, the fitting time will come.

The World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago, in 1893. Here Japanese Buddhism was presented to white America for the first time. Soyen Shaku’s lecture to the Parliament, presenting New Buddhism, was a big success. He followed up with the first English-language book on Zen, and a world teaching tour in 1905-6, spending time in America and several European countries.

(Anagarika Dharmapala, the great modernizer of Sri Lankan Buddhism who I discussed in a previous post, was even more of a star at the Parliament. He seems to have been particularly popular among the ladies—rather a waste if he kept his vow of celibacy.)

Soyen Shaku had responsibilities in Japan; he could not be a full-time missionary. In 1897, he sent his young student D.T. Suzuki to America—one of the most important events in Western Buddhism.

D.T. Suzuki invents “Zen”

Suzuki wound up defining “Zen” for the West for the next sixty years.

His qualifications to speak about Zen were dubious. He had a much stronger background in Western philosophy and theology, which he studied at university in Japan and in America. While at university, he did study Zen with both Imakita Kosen and Soyen Shaku, but his training was squeezed into weekends and vacations. He was a layman—never ordained—was never given formal permission to teach, and was definitely not a “Zen master.” Later in life, at least, Zen was not his own path; he practiced mainly Shin Buddhism, a very different sect.

Zen, however, was the Japanese Buddhism easiest to reinterpret as compatible with early 20th-century American values. And that is what Suzuki did, in dozens of English-language books, and when teaching in the U.S. (He was a professor at Columbia University in New York from 1952-57.) His starting point was Imakita Kosen’s New Buddhism, but to this he added a new theory of Zen meditation and enlightenment.

This theory was developed by Suzuki together with the Kyoto School. That was a group of Japanese philosophy professors, founded by a close friend of Suzuki’s, devoted to synthesizing Buddhist and Western philosophy. Their work was world-class—brilliant. Unfortunately, the main Western philosophy they chose to integrate with Buddhism was German Romantic Idealism. That philosophy is long-since discredited in the Western world. It is also, in my personal opinion, mostly wrong and harmful.

Suzuki presented this mash-up as the original, true, pure Zen; but also as not particularly Buddhist. Zen was, instead, the mystical essence of all religions; just as much a part of Christianity as of Buddhism.

From his study of Western culture, Suzuki understood its biggest problem: the uncertainty, anxiety, alienation, and loss of meaning that came with the scientific-rational-relative worldview. He presented Zen as the solution; and that was believable enough to make it popular.

Since his death, American Zen teachers have gradually unpicked Suzuki’s politically-motivated distortions. However, the Suzuki/Kyoto (mis)interpretation of meditation is still widespread. I think this is important to understanding current Consensus Buddhism. It is a large and subtle subject, so I’ll write a full, separate page about it soon.

The New New Zen: Sanbo Kyodan

A large fraction of American Zen teachers are in the HaradaYasutani lineage, called Sanbo Kyodan, which was most active in the mid-20th century. I haven’t been able to get a clear picture of its historical relationship with the late-1800s New Buddhism, but its ideas are closely similar:

  • Sanbo Kyodan specializes in teaching lay people, especially non-Japanese, and ordained Christians.
  • Meditation is the main or sole practice.
  • Sanbo Kyodan rejects most ritual, and does not require extensive study of doctrine or scripture.
  • It presents enlightenment as “realizing one’s true self, which is infinite and absolute” (the key idea in German Romantic Idealism). This a present-life experience, a transformation that eradicates ego.
  • It says that Zen is “not a religion,” but the experiential truth behind all great faiths.
  • Some Sanbo Kyodan teachers explain Buddhist ideas such as impermanence, anatman, and emptiness in terms of scientific concepts, like quantum mechanics.
  • Not all Sanbo Kyodan teachers consider themselves Buddhists; some are ordained Christian priests.

Further reading

Some things in this post might seem improbable. They appear all to be uncontested facts, however. You can check them easily in (e.g.) the Wikipedia. Its section on the Japanese New Buddhism is a good starting point.

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has a long section on Suzuki’s reinterpretation of Zen in terms of Western Romantic Idealism.

Robert H. Sharf has several academic journal articles that discuss the re-making of modern Zen in detail. These include “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism” and “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience“, and “Sanbōkyōdan: Zen and the Way of the New Religions.” Sharf has some axes to grind, and sometimes he seems to me to edge on overstating his case, but the facts seem solid.

A new World Religion

“Buddhism”—the “great world religion” we have today—was invented in the 1800s. The following ideas—which profoundly shape our practice—date to that century:

  • There is such a thing as “Buddhism”
  • It is a religion
  • It is one religion with several sects
  • It is a “world religion,” with an unchanging essence, suitable for all peoples in all times
  • It is a rational philosophy (and so maybe not a religion after all)
  • It is mainly an ethical philosophy
  • It is mainly about the relationship of the self with the Ultimate Truth, revealed by non-ordinary experience

This “Buddhism” was invented as a competitor to Christianity: just like Christianity, only better: more rational, more ethical, more tolerant, more spiritual.

We’ve been somewhat stuck with this “Buddhism.” It’s the root of what I call the Consensus, or “mainstream Western Buddhism.” But its late-1800s ideology is obsolete, and the imitation/competition thing it’s got going with Christianity is increasingly irrelevant.

I hope we can chuck it.

Understanding its brief history is the first step.

Christianity humbled by Reason

By the mid-1800s, God wasn’t quite dead yet, but his Alzheimer’s was well along. A lot of what He said had stopped making sense. Science showed that much of the Bible was factually wrong, and liberal humanism made many of Christianity’s ethical teachings seem barbaric. Liberal Westerners could only read the Bible selectively, and as allegory. “Reason” had taken over many of the functions of religion.

Why not go whole hog and abandon Christianity altogether? Some did, of course. But most feared that it would lead to nihilism and social breakdown. Without religion, there would be no ultimate meaning to life.

To preserve meaning, progressive Christians carved out three domains as the rightful property of religion, where science could not go:

  • ethics
  • the mysterious, innermost, deep self, which scientific psychology could not penetrate
  • the Infinite, the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth, which was ineffable and therefore not subject to reason

The essence of religion was, on the one hand, to act ethically; and on the other, to cultivate the mystical experience that brings your deep self into the right relationship with the Absolute.

Liberal Christianity was considered the best religion, for several “rational” reasons. Of these, the most important was that it was universal. “Reason” held that what was true, was true everywhere, always. The remarkable thing about the Law of Gravity is that it was the same for all men. Christianity, likewise, was the religion for all peoples everywhere: the only world religion. Judaism and Mohammedanism were merely national religions, of the Jews and Arabs. [In this case of Islam, this claim was absurd; but Islam was the enemy.] Both national religions also were subject to change and decay. The true essence of Christianity was exactly as Jesus had taught it, immutably.

Besides that, Christianity:

  • Was (mostly) rational (or rationalizable)
  • Had an ethical system based on universal principles of benefit and harm, not the insane, vicious taboos of ancient Middle-Eastern goat herders
  • Was socially concerned
  • Was the biggest religion in the world, which proved that it was the evolutionarily strongest, and therefore destined to eventually replace the others

Embarrassingly, however, Christianity had split into numerous sects, and there seemed to be no good way to choose between them. Progressively-minded people came to the opinion that all denominations should be regarded with tolerance, as partial truths, pointing toward the single ultimate truth by different paths.

Perhaps tolerance could be extended even beyond Christian sects. That opened the possibility that something better might be discovered—or constructed. Something with even more of the good qualities Christianity had, without the ugly bits that needed to be explained away.

The discovery of “Buddhism”

Two centuries ago, Europeans considered that there were three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. Also, there was paganism. Christianity was true and just; Judaism and Mohammedanism were false and wicked. Paganism, practiced by savages in vague far-off places, wasn’t really a religion at all. It was an incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals.

Growing world trade brought word that some “Oriental” peoples were less primitive than previously imagined. They showed signs of civilization, worthy of grudging respect.

There came a gradual recognition that the disparate “pagan” customs of various Oriental tribes had something in common. They told similar stories about various gods, named Sommona-Codom, Che-kia, Bootisat, and Bouddoon. Some Europeans guessed that these myths might all have a common origin.

Early translations of scriptures confirmed this. [All those god-names were, in fact, mispronounced names of Shakyamuni Buddha. “Sommona-Codom” is Shramana Gautama, “Che-kia” is Shakya, and “Bootisat” is Bodhisattva.] Not only were these all the same person, but he was supposedly a flesh-and-blood person, whose sayings the scriptures recorded. This was unexpected from paganism.

In fact, the analogy of Buddha to Christ and Mohammed as founders, and the scriptures to the Bible and Koran, was compelling. Apparently some Orientals were not simply pagans, after all. A new religion was announced: Buddh-ism, parallel to Christ-ianity and Mohammed-anism.

Creating the new World Religion

If Buddhism was a religion, then it must be a world religion—because it was the faith of many different nations. That was disconcerting: Christianity was no longer uniquely universal.

Still worse, it was soon discovered that there more Buddhists than Christians. That was dire. Christianity’s numerical superiority had been proof of its evolutionary strength, and therefore its ultimate rightness.

Of course, there were those who welcomed new competition for Christianity. Could Buddhism even be the superior world religion European liberals were looking for?

There was a problem. Buddhism, as actually found in Asia, was much more like the European idea of “paganism” than a “great world religion.” “An incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals” would not be an unfair description.

[I’m afraid I may be accused of political incorrectness here. I hasten to say that I myself practice (at minimum) demon worship and abominable rituals.]

However, there could be found—in odd corners of ancient Buddhist scriptures—the raw materials needed to construct a “world religion” to European specification. (This is probably not true for—say—Shinto or the Yoruba religion.) As one scholar declared in 1854, “Buddhism was not always that decrepit and worn-out superstition that it now appears.”

To get started, the ground had to be cleared, by declaring that what people had practiced in Asia for the past couple thousand years was not really Buddhism. The true Buddhism was the “original” Buddhism, as found in the scriptures. This was the essential, vital core of the religion, common to all sects across Asia—almost entirely buried beneath “local cultural accretions” and “unfortunate mixing with primitive folk beliefs.”

The actual beliefs and practices of Asians were irrelevant, because they did not conform to scripture. Buddhism in the 1800s was declared a “hopeless degeneration” or “unrecognizable corruption” of the true religion.

In fact, Asian Buddhists seemed appallingly ignorant of their own faith. Few even knew the languages of their scriptures. Writing in Sri Lanka in 1860, a British scholar observed that the doctrine of anatta (anatman) “is almost universally repudiated. Even the [Buddhist] priests, at one time, denied it; but when the passages teaching it were pointed out [by white people], they were obliged to acknowledge that it is a tenet of their religion.”

Evidently, it was Westerners who understood the scriptures properly, and Westerners who would define what true Buddhism was. And, they had an agenda. Buddhism was to be universal, rational, ethical, and socially conscious. It would be more scientific than religion; more humane than Christianity; more Protestant than Protestantism; more spiritual—in a good way—than Science.

Buddhist scripture is inconceivably vast. In it, you can find support for almost anything—even the Victorian conception of a superior version of Christianity.

The new world religion: an East-West collaboration

Buddhism was not, and never had been, anything like this fantasy. If the “Buddhism” project had continued exclusively in Europe, it would probably soon have failed, as hostile forces pointed out inconvenient facts.

“Buddhism,” as a “world religion,” was saved by Asian collaborators.

Fortunately, Asian leaders and Western liberals had a shared enemy: evangelical conservative Christianity. And Asian leaders had their own reasons for wanting to radically reform Buddhism.

The legal justification for colonialism, in the 1800s, did not apply to “real nation-states” which had “proper religions.” The framework for international law was the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended a horrific series of religious wars in Europe. The essence of the Treaty was that the ruler of each nation-state had the right to choose its religion, and other nation-states were not to interfere. Regions that were “not real nation-states” and had “no proper religion” were fair game for colonization.

So, reworking “Buddhism” into a “proper religion”—and reorganizing a kingdom into a nation-state—was a way to hold off the colonial powers. Thailand, in particular, was successful with this strategy; I’ll discuss the history in a later post.

Asian Buddhists, at state command, studied Western science, philosophy, and religion. They re-read Buddhist scripture, in dialogue with Western scholars, looking for passages compatible with Western ideas. Then they made large changes in Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Buddhism in Asia partly became the fantasy world-religion of Westerners. Over the past century and a half, it has been made more and more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious.

The best-studied collaboration was the total overhaul of Sri Lankan Theravada by Henry Steel Olcott (an American) and Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhalese) working closely together in the 1880s and ’90s. That is an extraordinary story. (Follow the links for some basics, or the references at the end of this post for details.)

Anagarika Dharmapala also founded the Maha Bodhi Society, in 1891. That was the first “Buddhist” organization in Asia since the destruction of Nalanda University 800 years ago. He brought together Buddhists from many different Asian countries on a shared project. Prior to this, there was almost no awareness of shared heritage or goals among the various Buddhisms.

This East-West collaboration is still going. Contemporary mainstream Western Buddhism is a co-creation of Asians (e.g. HH the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh) and Westerners (e.g. Bernie Glassman and Stephen Batchelor). And, hot damn, it’s more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious than ever.

And, the motivations are partly the same as in the 1800s. The Dalai Lama wants to portray Tibet as a nation-state. If it was a nation-state, then China’s colonization of it would be clearly in violation of international law. Part of being a nation state is having a modern, world-class religion. Thich Naht Hanh created a modern Buddhism as part of an effort to stop the quasi-colonial U.S. war in Vietnam. Bernie Glassman teaches Buddhism as inseparable from social action. Stephen Batchelor writes that the original teachings of the Buddha, as revealed in the scriptures when properly interpreted, are rational, empirical, humanistic, and compatible with modern science.

So what?

My point is not that these changes are illegitimate, or that the new “Buddhism” is necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, I want to point out that “Buddhism” contains large amounts of Western ideology from 150 years ago. Most Western Buddhists wrongly assume this stuff is “timeless Eastern wisdom,” and the essential core of our religion. If instead it’s our own recent history fed back to us, it is open to question.

Here are some questions I will ask later in this blog series:

  • Is it useful to look at “Buddhism” as one thing? (I think not.)
  • Do all the various Buddhisms have anything in common? Is there any essential core? (I think not.)
  • “Buddhism” views meditation as a creating a mystical connection between the deep self and the Absolute. Is this a good way to understand meditation? (I think not.)
  • Are there other, more accurate ways of understanding meditation to be found in traditional Buddhisms? (I think so.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually Victorian-era Western ethics? (I’m still researching this.)
  • How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually contemporary Western ethics? (Nearly all of it, I think.)
  • Does traditional Buddhism contain any ethical teachings that are both distinctive and valuable? (I haven’t found any yet.)
  • If not, why are we pretending that “Buddhism” is the framework for our ethics? (I have some guesses.)
  • “Buddhism” was invented partly as an antidote to Western secularism and materialism. Is that working? (I doubt it.)
  • Are there other resources, in traditional Buddhisms, that might be better antidotes? (I hope so.)
  • What other dubious Western assumptions have been incorporated into “Buddhism” without our realizing it? (I’m working on it.)

Further reading

This post, and this blog series, were inspired by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

There is a large, rapidly-growing academic literature on the re-making of Buddhism as a “world religion” in the late 1800s. Below are some starting points.

There are three aspects to the creation of Buddhism as a world religion: the activities of Westerners, the activities of Asians, and their collaborations. I find the collaboration the most interesting, but it’s the least-studied so far.

The Olcott-Dharmapala collaboration is discussed by McMahan (pp. 91-101), although he treats the two separately. The classic study is in Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed. Obeyesekere has a talk transcript here. Stephen Prothero’s The White Buddhist is a full book-length treatment; I haven’t read it, but there are excerpts here. There’s an enjoyable short account in Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake. Fields’ book is a history of how Buddhism came to America; it’s fascinating and highly readable.

Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions is excellent for background history on the concept of “world religions” in the late 1800s. It has a full chapter on the invention of “Buddhism” by Europeans; a good overview, although somewhat lacking in specifics.

Philip C. Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism is a detailed study. The title is somewhat misleading, as he emphasizes (p. 12) that the British created, not discovered “Buddhism.” Although fascinating, the book is limited by completely ignoring the aspect of co-construction with living Asian Buddhists.

Charles Hallisey’s “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism,” in Donald Lopez’ Curators of the Buddha is somewhat tiringly academic, but makes some good points about the East-West collaborative construction of modern Buddhism, starting from page 47.

I will discuss the remaking of Japanese Zen and Thai Theravada as “Buddhism, the world religion” in some detail later in this blog series.

The quote about Sri Lankan priests repudiating annata is from R. Spence Hardy’s A Manual of Budhism [sic], In its Modern Development, p. 397.

You can find much or all of the text of the books cited above on-line, via the Amazon “look inside” feature and/or Google Books.

Problems with scripture

Protestant Buddhism” inherits from Protestant Christianity the idea that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority. Many Western Buddhists take this for granted; others dismiss it.

Authority, and the role of scripture, has passed through three phases in Buddhism:

  • Traditional Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; the monastic sangha has ultimate spiritual authority
  • Protestant Buddhism: Scripture is the ultimate authority
  • Politically-correct Buddhism: Scripture is mostly ignored; each individual has ultimate spiritual authority

Scripture in traditional Buddhism

Buddhism is, in theory, a text-based religion. In practice, scripture is almost entirely ignored in traditional Buddhism. Transmission of doctrine and practice is oral, instead. Mostly only monks can read, and usually only a small fraction of them. They read only a handful of selected texts, which are used to prove particular points of doctrine. The vast majority of scriptures are never read by anyone at all. Monastic institutional traditions are the ultimate spiritual authority. (This is similar to the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.)

Problems with scripture as authority

Starting in the mid-1800s, Buddhism was partly reformed in imitation of Protestant Christianity. Scripture was given ultimate spiritual authority.

For this to work, all the following would have to be true:

  1. The Buddha had a complete, correct understanding
  2. The scriptures, as we have them now, are a complete, correct explanation of the Buddha’s understanding
  3. The scriptures are so clear that each Buddhist can read them and form the same complete, correct understanding

All these seem questionable.

The third is particularly unlikely, because Buddhists do not agree about how to read scriptures. There is a problem of interpretation: we know what the text says, but what does that mean? Often texts are highly obscure or ambiguous. (They also often seem insane, idiotic, ethically repugnant, or factually wrong, which needs to be explained away.)

In such cases, who gets to decide what the right interpretation is? It seems that whoever decides, gets to be the ultimate spiritual authority—rather than scripture itself.

Scriptural interpretation in Protestantism

Protestant Christianity faces the same problem with the Bible. Different Protestant Christians have developed different approaches, and this is one of the main issues that divides the Christian world today. Overall, there is no satisfactory solution.

In practice, the winning approach is to deny that there is a problem. The Bible should be read literally. “There is only one literal meaning for each sentence, and everyone can agree on what that is.” That is plainly untrue, but it seems to be the only way to hold onto the non-negotiable Protestant doctrine of scriptural authority. It’s held by most Christian conservatives (with fudges as needed to deal with the most blatant problems).

Conservative (“fundamentalist”) Christianity is doing well. Mainstream Christianity is collapsing. When everyone gets to interpret the Bible for themselves, most people implicitly replace unappealing Christian doctrines with comfortable liberal secular humanist ones. Christianity is gutted; it is reduced to a shell, an outer form whose core has been eaten away by non-Christian beliefs and practices. It has no distinct function, so everyone leaves. (Some of them put a Buddhist shell on their beliefs, and that’s Consensus Buddhism.)

Scriptural interpretation in Western Buddhism

Some Buddhists are scriptural literalists; but that’s rare.

A liberal Protestant approach to scripture dominated Western understanding of Buddhism from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Liberal Christian scholars had developed “sophisticated historical-critical textual analysis methods” which were supposed to reveal the “original meaning” of the Bible. Western Buddhist scholars applied the same methods to Buddhist scripture, expecting that this would reveal the “original intent of the Buddha,” as opposed to the ignorant misunderstandings of later Asian Buddhists. This work has significantly influenced current Western Buddhist interpretations.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many living Buddhist teachers arrived in the West, and their teaching mainly replaced Western scriptural analysis. Also, it turned out that the supposedly “sophisticated methods” were unreliable. Their conclusions have often been shown to be factually wrong using other kinds of evidence. (Some of those mistaken conclusions persist as Western Buddhist myths—but that’s a whole ’nother topic…)

So, most Western Buddhists now either take the traditional approach (Sangha elders provide the correct interpretation based on oral transmission), or believe that each Buddhist has to find a personal understanding. The Protestant approach doesn’t seem to have worked out well for Buddhism in the West.

Individualist egalitarianism

“Consensus” Western Buddhism makes each Buddhist their own ultimate spiritual authority. Everyone takes their own inner journey to find their own truth. Everyone has the right to interpret scripture as they like.

If people actually did that, it might be interesting. I’m not sure what would happen. Probably we’d get a thousand strange new forms of Buddhism, and that would be cool.

In practice, Consensus Buddhists don’t read scripture. It’s difficult, unpleasant work, and mostly a waste of time.

I’ve forced myself to read some. Almost all of it is exceedingly boring. It’s unbelievably repetitive, it takes a full page to make a simple point that could be said in a sentence, and most of it is just silly, one way or another.

And then, there’s large chunks that are hopelessly obscure. Often, oral tradition agrees that they are incomprehensible; no one claims to be sure what they mean.

Occasionally you learn something—but you have to be a masochist.

So mostly we’re back to ignoring Buddhist scripture. (Maybe tradition got that right…) Modern Buddhists’ personal interpretations of Buddhism owe little to ancient texts.

So where’s authority?

But this points up another problem. Politically correct Buddhism gives everyone the right to interpret scripture—but we can’t. The right doesn’t give you the ability. This becomes obvious if you seriously try to read scripture.

On the other hand, a competent teacher can help you make much more sense of scripture than you could figure out on your own.

And that leads to the topic of an upcoming post—the problematic role of teachers in Consensus Buddhism.

Protestant Buddhism

Many Western Buddhists would consider the following ideas obviously true, and perhaps as defining Buddhism:

  1. Everyone can potentially attain enlightenment
  2. Religious practice is your personal responsibility; no one can do it for you
  3. You don’t necessarily have to have help from monks to practice Buddhism effectively
  4. Non-monks can teach Buddhism; celibacy is not essential to religious leadership
  5. Ordinary people can and should meditate; meditation is the main Buddhist practice
  6. Careful observation of your own inner thoughts and feelings is the essence of meditation
  7. Ordinary people can, and should, read and interpret Buddhist texts, which should be available in translation
  8. Ritual is not necessary; it’s a late cultural accretion on the original, rational Buddhist teachings
  9. Magic, used to accomplish practical goals, is not part of Buddhism
  10. Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods or spirits or demons; or at any rate, they should be ignored as unimportant
  11. Buddhism doesn’t believe in idols (statues inhabited by gods)
  12. Buddhist institutions can be useful, but not necessary; they tend to become corrupt, and we should be suspicious of them
  13. Everyday life is sacred

These ideas come mainly from Protestant Christianity, not traditional Buddhism. They are not entirely absent in traditional Buddhism. However, mostly, in traditional Buddhism:

  1. Only monks can potentially attain enlightenment
  2. Religious practice is mainly a public, ritual affair, led by monks; the lay role is passive attendance
  3. There is no Buddhism without monks
  4. Only monks can teach Buddhism, and celibacy is critical to being a monk
  5. Only monks meditate, and very few of them; meditation is a marginal practice
  6. Meditation is mainly on subjects other than one’s self
  7. Only monks read Buddhist texts, their interpretation is fixed by tradition, and they are available only in ancient, dead languages
  8. Essentially all Buddhist practice is public ritual
  9. Much of Buddhist practice aims at practical, this-world goals, by magically influencing spirits
  10. Gods and demons are the main subject of Buddhist ritual
  11. Buddhists worship idols that are understood to be the dwelling-places of spirits
  12. All reverence is due to the monastic, institutional Sangha, which is the sole holder of the Dharma
  13. Everyday life is defiled, contaminating, and must be abandoned if you want to make spiritual progress

Buddhism is still understood and practiced this way in much of Asia.

So what?

I want to call some of the Protestant Buddhist ideas into question. Mostly, I think the “Protestant Reformation” of Buddhism has been a good thing. However, I find some aspects problematic.

My point is not that Protestant ideas should not be mixed with Buddhism, or that we should return to tradition. Rather, I will suggest that some of these ideas don’t work. Buddhists will need to find alternatives.

When Protestant ideas are misunderstood as essential to Buddhism, they cannot be challenged. Knowing they have only been added recently makes it possible to question them.

Most of the rest of this page discusses the history of the merging of Protestant ideas into Buddhism. Near the end, I begin to raise questions about whether it was good thing.

I’ll start by recounting a bit of the history of the Christian Protestant Reformation. Then I’ll look at Buddhism as it was in the mid-1800s, and the motivations for reform.

The Catholic Church before the Reformation

Before the Reformation, priests had a special, irreplaceable spiritual role. Only they could perform the public rituals that are the central religious practices: Mass, confession, extreme unction, and so forth. The Church functioned as intermediaries between lay (ordinary) people and God. Lay people had no direct access to the sacred.

Lay people attended rituals passively. The rituals were performed in Latin, which only priests knew. No one other than priests was authorized to teach the Gospel. The priesthood was (in theory) entirely and necessarily celibate.

The Bible was not available to ordinary people, and it was also written only in ancient dead languages. The interpretation of the Bible was fixed by institutional tradition; the ultimate source of religious authority was the Church itself.

“This world” (life on earth) was seen as defiled. The proper focus of religion was the “next world” (heaven or hell).

Despite that, religion provided this-wordly magical benefits to lay people. Particularly by praying to patron saints, one might receive practical benefits or protection. (There is a similarity between the role of Catholic saints and the many gods and spirits of Buddhism.)

The Church could also provide specific next-world benefits. It sold “indulgences,” which were widely understood as forgiving sins, and getting you out of purgatory, by transferring “merit” from the Church’s account to yours. (The theory of merit transfer is the main basis for lay donations to the Buddhist monastic Sangha. In Buddhism, too, its function is to improve your situation after death.)

The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the wide-spread belief that the Church had become corrupt. It was immensely wealthy. It was seen as more concerned with pursuing money and power than proper religious matters. The selling of indulgences was seen particularly as abusive. The Church also licensed brothels, and instituted a tax specifically on priests who kept mistresses.

Moderate attempts at reform, from within the Church, failed.

The Protestant Christian Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was a radical solution: it cut the Church out of the deal altogether. The central theoretical change was to give lay people direct access to God. That eliminated the special role of the Church.

According to Protestantism, each man can be his own priest. The Reformation rejected a separate priestly class, rejected monasticism, and closed monasteries where it could. (Similarly, Protestant Buddhism has extended the word “Sangha” to refer to lay believers as well as monks, and allows lay people to teach.) Protestantism rejected the theory of merit transfer.

According to Protestantism, lay people can access God in two ways: through scripture, and through prayer. It is the right, and the duty, of every layman to own a Bible written in his native language, and to read and understand it. The word of the Bible itself is the ultimate spiritual authority, not the Church’s interpretation of it.

Lay people also accomplish a direct, personal relationship with God, through private prayer. (This is analogous to the role of meditation in Protestant Buddhism. It supposedly gives you a direct connection with Ultimate Truth.) In silent contemplation, one should constantly examine one’s soul for impulses to sin. (This is analogous to the type of meditation in which one attends to ones’ own concrete thoughts and feelings, rather than contemplating often-abstract external matters—the more common practice in traditional Buddhism.)

Because you can have a direct relationship with God, you shouldn’t pray to saints. (Protestant Buddhism deemphasizes or eliminates celestial Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and so forth.)

Protestantism strips magical elements from the sacramental rituals (to varying degrees, according to sect). Ritual is often understood as providing a focus for community and an opportunity for personal experience, rather than being an irreplaceable sacred function.

Protestantism was iconoclastic, meaning that it encouraged the smashing of religious sculptures and paintings, because they were seen as false idols. It also opposed the wearing of priestly “vestments” (special clothes); this is mirrored in Protestant Buddhist contempt for Buddhist robes.

Some strains of Protestantism see everyday life as sacred. There should not be a special part of life set off for religious activity; the faithful should bring religious attention and intention to every part of the day. This is a major theme of Protestant Buddhism, too. It’s not usual in traditional lay Buddhist practice.

Protestant Buddhism

Here’s the Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism‘s take:

Protestant Buddhism… denies that only through the [monastic] Sangha can one seek or find salvation. Religion, as a consequence, is internalized. The layman is supposed to permeate his life with his religion and strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society. Through printing laymen had, for the first time, access to Buddhist texts and could teach themselves meditation. Accordingly, it was felt they could and should try to reach nirvana. As a consequence lay Buddhists became critical both of the traditional norms and of the monastic role.

A classic definition is from Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed:

The hallmark of Protestant Buddhism, then, is its view that the layman should permeate his life with his religion; that he should strive to make Buddhism permeate his whole society, and that he can and should try to reach nirvana. As a corollary, the lay Buddhist is critical of the traditional norms of the monastic role; he may not be positively anticlerical but his respect, if any, is for the particular monk, not for the yellow robe as such.

This kind of Buddhism is Protestant, then, in its devaluation of the role of the monk, and in its strong emphasis on the responsibility of each individual for her/ his ‘salvation’ or enlightenment, the arena for achieving which is not a monastery but the everyday world which, rather than being divided off from, should be infused with Buddhism.

Forces for Reformation

The Protestant-style reformation of Buddhism began in Asia, in the 1860s. Protestant missionaries were aggressively preaching Protestant ideas to Buddhists. Some Buddhists accepted key Protestant ideas, while rejecting Christianity overall, and used them to reform Buddhism.

The Buddhist Sangha, like the Catholic Church, was an immensely powerful, rich institution, which naturally opposed change. In both cases, Reformation was possible only due to an alliance among other classes, who were newly increasing in power. It was the same three groups in both cases:

  • Reformation occurred when national rulers centralized state power and built effective bureaucracies. The Church/Sangha previously had secular power equal to, or surpassing, kings. Newly powerful rulers used the Reformation to break the power of the Church/Sangha, and to subordinate it to the state. Once they brought the Church/Sangha under control, they used it to impose a new, homogeneous national culture on the masses.
  • The rise of a new, educated middle class was a key to Reformation. The middle class resented religious taxation, economic competition from the Church/Sangha, and its arbitrary, self-interested economic regulations. Intelligent, literate people also didn’t see why they should be excluded from direct religious practice; especially because much of the priesthood was neither intelligent nor literate nor had any interest in religion.
  • Radicals within the Church/Sangha opposed its corruption, and wanted to return it to a purely religious function.

I’ll write more about this when I look at specific case histories (on Japan and Thailand).

The “Protestantization” of Buddhism has continued in the West in the past half-century. I’ll cover that as part of the recent history of “Consensus Buddhism.”

There are other important Protestant doctrines that have been partly imported into Buddhism. These include God and Christian ethics. I’ll write about God in Buddhism in my post on Japan, and about Christian influences on Buddhist ethics in a whole slew of posts later in this series. (Jeez, I’m issuing a lot of IOUs here!)

Protestant Buddhism: A jolly good idea

Overall, I think the Buddhist Protestant Reformation was a good thing:

  • I am skeptical about merit transfer, and I don’t believe lay people get their money’s worth when they pay for incomprehensible Buddhist rituals
  • I don’t think monks have any intrinsic, exclusive powers; I don’t believe celibacy is dramatically valuable
  • I do think lay people can benefit from personal practice, particularly meditation
  • I think lay people can understand Buddhist scripture, and reading it can be spiritually helpful
  • I don’t believe in magic or spirits (at least not in a straightforward, literal sense); and I think those beliefs can be counter-productive
  • I am wary of religious institutions, which do often become corrupt
  • I do think everything is sacred

Problems with Buddhist Protestantism

I also see some problems in the merger of Protestant ideas into Buddhism. I’ll write about those in my next several posts. A preview:

  • Problems with scripture: who gets to decide what they mean?
  • Problems with priests: “every man his own priest” doesn’t actually work
  • Problems with meditation: what does it really do?

Further reading

There’s a large academic literature that discusses Protestant influences on Buddhism. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a single, comprehensive presentation. This post may be the first attempt to set out parallels between the Christian and Buddhist Protestant Reformations systematically.

This post was prompted by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, in which Protestantism is a major theme.

The term “Protestant Buddhism” was introduced by Gananath Obeyesekere. His book with Richard Gombrich, Buddhism Transformed, has an extensive discussion. Unfortunately, the book considers only Sri Lanka, which is atypical in some ways. Also, they introduce some confusion by using “Protestant” to refer both to ideas imported from Protestant Christianity and to protest against colonialism.

If this post proves “controversial,” I would guess that it is more because of the parallels between traditional Buddhism and the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, than for the parallels between Protestant Christianity and contemporary Western Buddhism.

Protestant-style Buddhist reformers have found quotations from Buddhist scripture that suggest the Protestant ideas have always been Buddhist doctrine. It’s true that they are not entirely alien to Buddhism. However, in practice, they have almost always been marginal, almost everywhere. Buddhist scripture is vast, extremely diverse, and contradictory. You can find quotations in it to support almost anything, especially if you take short pieces out of context.

In any case, you can’t learn about traditional Buddhism, as practiced by lay people, from Buddhist texts. Scripture describes what ought to happen, rather than what does happen; and it is almost entirely about the Sangha, rather than lay people. And, the scriptures were written centuries ago, when things were often quite different.

To learn about traditional Buddhism, you either need to go to Asia and see for yourself, or read anthropology. If you have been to a Buddhist country, and observed lay practice (especially in rural areas where modern influences are least), you will probably recognize my description.

Otherwise, Melford Spiro’s Buddhism and Society is a classic study of Theravada Buddhist practice in Burma, and an excellent starting point. The Gombrich and Obeyesekere book is good for Sri Lanka. For Tibet, I recommend Geoffrey Samuel’s Civilized Shamans. All these books specifically address the nature of lay practice and the relationship between lay people and monks.

If anything in this post prompts incredulity, I will try to provide a citation to a reliable academic source.

Shock or horror I can’t help you with.

Modern Buddhism: Forged as anti-colonial weapon

What we think of as “Western Buddhism” actually began in Asia, in the 1860s. It was invented as a way of fighting back against Western military and religious aggression.

To counter Western threats, Asian rulers forced Buddhism to incorporate many Western ideologies. These include key principles of the scientific worldview and of Protestant Christianity.

That’s a surprising fact; but it is not just the answer to a historical trivia question.

The Buddhisms we have now were created with motivations probably quite different from ours. So it could be good to ask: do those Buddhisms address our current needs? Do we still want all those Western ideologies in Buddhism?

[This is a page in my Crumbling of Consensus Buddhism series. It is a conceptual overview of the next several posts. Those will have much more detail, including facts that support the broad generalizations here.]

The new threat from the West

For centuries, Asian rulers had faced the Western powers as approximate equals. That changed quite suddenly around 1840.

Western technology reached a tipping point. The West invented new military technologies Asia could not defend against: steam-powered gunboats, especially. Industrial manufacturing also gave the West enormous new economic power.

The West sent Christian missionaries around the world, backed with military might. Once a country was mostly converted to Christianity, it was easy to subjugate politically.

The West used this military, economic, and missionary power to “colonize” the rest of the world. That meant reducing entire countries, even most of whole continents, to slavery or near-slavery. Several Asian countries fell. Others fought back, successfully.

Asia could not match the West in technology, military power, or industrial production—although strengthening those was vital. The countries that successfully resisted colonization fought back with ideology as well.

Buddhism was an ideological key to success. But it was not the Buddhism of 1840. It was a series of new, modern, national Buddhisms, created in the later 1800s, by state decree. The Buddhisms we now know were first forged as weapons against Western colonialism.

Modern concepts, Asian values

Westerners themselves said that their power came from ideas. Devastatingly destructive gunboats were not a chance discovery. They were a logical product of technology, which was a logical product of science, which was a logical product of philosophy.

Christianity, a weapon even more destructive than gunboats, was an also ideology—and one that claimed to be justified with science and philosophy.

Clueful Asian rulers were convinced. To compete, they would have to adopt modern, Western concepts. But those were alien to Asian values. Importing them as-is would be difficult and probably disastrous. Instead, they needed to be modified. They would be domesticated. Asia would become part of the modern world, but Asian countries would retain their core social values.

Buddhism was the force they used to domesticate Western ideas.

Modern Buddhism: a four-edged weapon

By forcibly merging Buddhism with key modern concepts, Asian rulers accomplished four goals at once:

  1. Gain direct benefits from useful ideas
  2. Convert the masses from ignorant peasants into an educated industrial workforce
  3. Enlist Western liberals as allies against Western church and state power
  4. Eliminate the potential threat of monastic opposition, and co-opt the monastic sangha as an agent of state power

The Protestant Reformation of Buddhism

Starting in the 1860s, Buddhism was re-formed in ways similar to the Protestant Christian Reformation.

The key Protestant Christian innovation was to give ordinary people direct access to God through reading scripture and private prayer.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was organized for the benefit of the Church. It gave access to God only through public rituals, performed by priests, in Latin, an ancient language only priests could understand. The main religious function of the lay people was to give money to the Church.

Pre-modern Buddhism was organized much like Catholicism. It was good for monks, and parasitic on lay people. Lay people could not meditate, and had no access to Buddhist scriptures, which were written in ancient languages only elite monks knew. Religion was about public rituals, performed by priests, that ordinary people were not meant to understand. The main religious function of lay people was to give money to the monastic Sangha.

In terms of the four-edged weapon:

  1. For most people, the “Protestant Reformation” of Buddhism was a good thing. (It was not so good for monks, maybe.)
  2. Protestant missionaries could easily explain what was wrong with Buddhism’s familiar Catholic-style organization. Their arguments would make obvious sense to lay Buddhists. Reforming Buddhism to give lay people direct access to the sacred refuted the missionaries’ criticisms.
  3. Western governments backed Christian missionaries partly because they “uplifted savages from their local tribal superstitions.” Buddhism in 1840 mostly looked like a bunch of local tribal superstitions. When Buddhism was reformed to look like a “Great World Religion”, one that could compete with Christianity in its own terms, Western liberals were convinced to oppose missionization. They lobbied their governments to restrain the missionaries.
  4. By cutting out the middlemen, the Protestant-style reformation reduced priestly power, in Buddhism just as it had in Christianity.

It’s worth mentioning that the Buddhist struggle against Christian missionaries is still going on in many Asian countries. It seems that Christian evangelism mostly fails in places where lay people are directly involved in Buddhist practice. It succeeds where lay people’s main religious job is to give money to monks.

Rational, scientific Buddhism

Nowadays, Buddhism is often presented as thoroughly rational: it follows logically from sensible first principles. Buddhism is supposed to be, among religions, uniquely compatible with the scientific worldview.

Although this may be true for Buddhism now, it was not at all true in 1840.

Forced rationalization of Buddhism had four benefits:

  1. By giving religious justification to a rational, scientific worldview, Buddhism contributed to Asian industrialization.
  2. Especially, it helped reeducate people as competent industrial workers. You cannot run a modern economy if everyone believes that the world is flat, hell is a cave a few miles under ground, Buddhist rituals cure diseases, and magic amulets sold by monks are the best protection against demons.
  3. Buddhism could now convincingly claim to be more rational and scientific than Christianity. Many Western liberals were persuaded: the West should not colonize or missionize countries with a better religion than its own.
  4. Revealing some Buddhist teachings as absurd superstitions challenged the credibility and ideological power of the sangha. Reducing popular belief in the power of Buddhist magic cut monastic income from protective rituals.

Stay tuned for more

Later in this blog series, I will cover the Protestant Reformation and rationalization of Buddhism in much more detail. I’ll also look at two case studies: Japan and Thailand. Those are the two most important sources for current Consensus Buddhism.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Western Buddhism” is supposed to be inclusive. That is one of its main themes.

It is a big tent, in which we can be one happy family, respecting each others’ differences, yet celebrating the shared essential core of Buddhism, its fundamental unity. There is no need for discord, because the Consensus includes all types of Buddhism—vipassana, Zen, Tibetan, maybe even Pure Land, who knows. We (of course!) don’t discriminate on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, musical preference, blah blah blah.

At the same time, Consensus Buddhism beats itself up for failing to fully include everyone. It is almost entirely white, middle class, and is conspicuously failing to reach people born after the ’60s. The Consensus wrings its hands; moans that “we are trying so hard—why don’t they like us?”; and vows to do better, to try even harder to include everyone.

Meanwhile, it actively excludes Buddhists who do not share its concept of “the shared essential core of Buddhism.”


  • Why does Consensus Buddhism fail when it tries to include “everyone”?
  • Why does it deliberately exclude some Buddhists?
  • If my guess is right that the Consensus is crumbling, why is that?

Some of the answers are found in another question:

  • Why try to include everyone in the first place?

Unity and diversity: counter-culture vs. sub-cultures

Should Western Buddhism be one thing? Or should there be many different Western Buddhisms?

Your answer is likely to reflect the way you think about Western society and culture in general. Here are two views:

  • Counter-culture: Western Buddhism is part of a general progressive movement to reform society, culture, and consciousness. It provides spiritual guidance for that movement, as an antidote to the nihilistic consumer capitalism of the mainstream. Western Buddhism brings inner freedom from unhealthy, negative thinking and emotions. The movement for social justice and a sustainable society will bring outer freedom from the mainstream power-structure, which causes war, poverty, and environmental degradation. For the movement to be successful, it needs to include as many people as possible, by providing an alternative, inspiring, coherent vision. Eventually, right consciousness will spread to the mainstream and the movement will have succeeded.
  • Sub-cultures: There are many Western Buddhisms, which serve different sorts of people, with different values and life-styles. Individual Western Buddhists identify with their particular brand of Buddhism, often as an exclusive tribe. A particular Buddhism is intensely meaningful for its members, but it doesn’t try to be universal; it would seem bizarre and meaningless for most people. Individuals and Buddhist organizations may work for social change, but they may have quite different ideas about what change is wanted, and how to bring it about. Buddhism isn’t an alternative to the mainstream, because there no longer is any mainstream.

I suggest that Consensus Buddhism is based on the counter-cultural model. Ideally, it would like to create a single, inclusive, new Western Buddhism, merging the best bits of all Asian traditions with Western values (such as social equality) and methods (such as psychotherapy). It is based on a supposed essential, shared core of all forms of Buddhism: meditation plus liberal ethics.

Unfortunately, much of Western Buddhist reality is more like the sub-cultural model. For the leaders of the Consensus, this creates an on-going tension or uncertainty. Can they unify all the various Western Buddhisms into a single force? Or is the best they can manage a federation that includes distinct approaches based on different Asian traditions, suitably modernized? I’ll write more on this later, discussing Joseph Goldstein’s book One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, which grapples with that confusion.

In another post, I will suggest that neither model—counter-culture or sub-cultures—is the way forward. They are both already obsolete; the counter-culture ended in 1972-74, and the era of sub-cultures has also passed.

Different kinds of difference

Western Buddhists could be categorized in different ways. Of course, none of these categories are “real”; they are just ways of looking at differences, which might or might not be useful for particular purposes. On this page, I’m concerned with who is included in the Consensus, and who is excluded, and why.

Here are some kinds of differences between Western Buddhists:

  • Schools, traditions, or sects. Western Buddhists might be Theravadins or Nyingmapas or Triratna practitioners. Or they might not belong to any such group.
  • Traditional, modern, or neither. Generally there is a spectrum from traditional to modern. Some groups position themselves at the extremes. Some groups don’t fit on the spectrum and are neither traditional nor modern.
  • Demographic categories. Western Buddhists are black, white, Hispanic, Japanese. Regardless of ethnicity, they may have been born in the West and grown up in Western culture, or they may be recent immigrants whose culture is non-Western. Buddhists may be of any social or economic class. Buddhists may be from any age group.

I’ll discuss how Consensus Buddhism treats each of these types of difference. That will suggest answers to questions about who it includes, and who it excludes, and why.

Including all traditions

In Asia before the mid-1800s, no one thought there was a fundamental unity of dharma. Buddhism was divided into numerous hostile sects.

These sectarian divisions were largely due to historical, political, and cultural differences between Asian regions. Those differences are irrelevant to Westerners.

There is no reason that different Buddhist traditions should be hostile to each other, in the modern world. Moreover, different traditions seem to have different things to offer. Why not drop the artificial distinctions, and take what is best from each?

An attractive idea; but some of the differences between Buddhisms are fundamental, not cultural. Different yanas use quite different methods to accomplish quite different goals, and hold quite different fundamental principles.

These differences should not be suppressed, I think. Different approaches work for different people. These differences should not be a source of rancor, but they also should not be swept under the rug, because they are important to understand. They can be respectfully discussed, without avoidance.

I don’t believe there is any essential, shared core to Buddhism. There is nothing that all Buddhisms have in common. This makes true consensus impossible.

Nevertheless, Consensus Buddhism has been successful at including many modernized Buddhists sects. Multiple branches of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism are well-represented, despite many fundamental disagreements between them. This has been accomplished partly by suppressing important differences. However, the Consensus’ implicit claim to speak for all Western Buddhists is not refuted by exclusion of Buddhist schools.

(Of course, you could pick nits. The non-Zen East Asian schools are mostly missing. But then, those schools don’t yet have many Western adherents. Maybe they will be included once they gain a foothold in the West. Mind you, tens of thousands of Westerners practice Soka Gakkai. But maybe Soka Gakkai “isn’t really Buddhism.” Let’s move along, this could get messy.)

Race, class, gender, culture, country of origin

Including all demographic categories is a shibboleth of political correctness. It reflects the counter-cultural idea that, for The Movement to be successful, it must gather as broad a coalition as possible, with a universal vision. The mainstream has the political and economic power, so progressive change must rely on people power: all races and classes united, marching shoulder to shoulder for freedom and justice.

The Consensus sees itself failing here, and it agonizes about it endlessly and uselessly. This seems to have been a main topic of the recent Maha Teachers Council, a major Consensus gathering. One dissident attendee wrote:

The agenda of the conference seems to have been almost entirely concerned with social issues rather than with teaching Buddhism. I am left with the impression that for many of the people here Buddhism and “social justice” equate. (link)

[It was] essentially an ideological exercise in which large group pressure was mobilised to get one to identify with a liberal American agenda only distantly related to Buddhism. (link)

Jack Kornfield, one of the main architects of the Consensus and an organizer of the Council, was interviewed about it:

Kornfield admitted disappointment that the gathering had no representatives of Asian Buddhist temples, which are some of the oldest and largest in the U.S. and largely serve immigrant communities.

“There is still a pretty big divide between temples and teachers whose communities are of immigrants and those who are called convert Buddhists. I don’t know how to address this,” he said.

From a sub-cultural point of view, this makes no sense. Of course active exclusion is wrong. But immigrants doing their own thing is a problem only if you think “Buddhism in America” should be a single movement. Different Buddhisms will naturally appeal to people with different values, life-experience, and interests.

Soka Gakkai (SGI) is a case in point. It is unusual in appealing to blacks and Hispanics, and is popular among the working class. It’s definitely not part of the Consensus, and I doubt the Consensus has tried to draw it in. The Consensus thinks Buddhism is meditation plus Western liberal ethics. SGI doesn’t teach meditation, and might look ethically dubious to Western liberals. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it—but I’m white, meditate, and don’t have working class or Asian values. That’s the point: SGI is a subculture, and trying to include the people it attracts in a counter-cultural vision won’t work. If you say “they aren’t really Buddhists, SGI has no meditation,” you exclude almost all traditional Asian Buddhists (essentially none of whom ever meditated).

The Consensus also excludes people who aren’t politically correct. “Yeah, well, we don’t want them anyway,” might be a Consensus reply. But I would guess this is a main reason Asian Buddhist immigrants are uninterested. They tend to be politically and socially conservative. They may be appalled by permissive sexual ethics and liberal disdain for authority and tradition. Does that make them bad people? Not “really” Buddhists?

There are plenty of white people who find Consensus political correctness offensive, too. Most think Buddhism is just another flavor of p.c. junk, and jeer at it. Some find a home in a Buddhist subculture that respects other Western value systems. (I, for instance, am mildly politically incorrect, which is accepted in my adamantly subcultural, non-p.c. Buddhist lineage. Phew!)


During the 1960s and early ’70s, there was a unified youth counter-culture, and Buddhism was an aspect of it. During the ’80s, youth culture split into numerous sub-cultures, and numerous Buddhist sub-cultures emerged.

The counter-cultural vision tends to be appealing to people whose worldviews formed in the ’60s and ’70s. The sub-cultural view tends to seem natural to people whose worldviews formed in the ’80s. (Of course, there are lots of exceptions to both.)

Consensus Buddhism doesn’t seem appealing to many people born after the ’60s. Its counter-cultural vision may be part of the reason.

I wrote a little about this a couple years ago. I’ve been thinking about it hard since then. Later in this blog series, I suggest that a series of deep shifts in Western culture, since 1960, have repeatedly re-shaped Buddhism; and I’ll guess about what they imply for the future.

Modern vs. non-modern

There is a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern Buddhisms. The Consensus represents the modernist extreme. If you can tick all the boxes of the p.c. modern value system, you’re in.

The Consensus formed in the early ’90s, and started to lose its grip in the mid- to late 2000s. During that reign, groups got pushed toward traditional and modernist extremes. In the ’80s, and again now, it is easier to be somewhere in the middle, or off the spectrum altogether (neither modern nor traditional). I have described this effect as an oppressive duopoly.

There is a huge marketing advantage in belonging to the Consensus. Partly this is the deliberate activity of the Consensus as an alliance. The Consensus controls access to major Buddhist magazines and book publishers. If you sign up for the Consensus, famous Consensus personalities will write endorsements on the back of your books, which helps sales. They can give marketing strategy advice, which was invaluable during the ’90s and early 2000s—before their approach stopped working.

The other advantage of being totally modern is that it’s a simple, coherent packaging that makes sense to modern people. If your product is mostly modern, but has some discordant traditional features, you have to explain why they are absolutely necessary to your brand of Buddhism. That’s hard.

Like, you mostly seem modern, except your priests wear traditional robes. Well, that’s bogus, isn’t it! That’s some Asian thing. It’s just cultural, right? Because there couldn’t be any deep, universal meaning to a particular style of clothing. Anyway, priests aren’t anybody special, right? They’re just ordinary people who have read more books about Buddhism than I have. By wearing fancy duds you’re pretending to be better than the rest of us. That isn’t nice, because in America we know everyone is equal.

If you hear enough of that, it’s really tempting to scrap the robes, even if they do have a profound, irreplaceable meaning within your system.

Some newcomers to Buddhism quickly see through the superficiality of the Consensus approach. They figure out that Westernizing Buddhism throws away much of what is valuable in it. So then they search for the “most authentic” brand available. “Authenticity” then gets confused with tradition—because that’s the line Asian Buddhisms have alway taken. This puts groups in competition to be maximally traditional, which may involve retaining (or recreating) Asian cultural forms that actually don’t function well for anyone.

Although extreme modernism and extreme tradition may work well for some people, my guess is that most would be better served in the middle.

And I feel even more strongly that the traditional/modern spectrum is actually bogus altogether. The Buddhisms that are most likely to work in the future will be neither traditional, nor modern.

The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has changed the way I think about Buddhism more than any book I’ve read in years. I think it’s destined to be an influential classic.

It’s a history of how and why “Western Buddhism” came to be what it is. That casts new light on what “Western Buddhism” is, and raises new questions about whether that’s what we want.

My understanding of this book is the main basis for this blog series. (Of course, I use other sources too, and of course McMahan might disagree with everything I say.) This is not a general review. Instead, I will explain some parts of the book that are relevant to my own project.

Traditional Buddhism is very unlike Western Buddhism

Most Western Buddhists don’t realize how different even the most traditional and “authentic” forms found in the West are from traditional Asian Buddhism. Once this is understood, questions arise: where did modern Buddhism come from? Why? What is it good for? Is it legitimate? What are the implications of its differences from tradition?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism starts with a series of four portraits of typical Buddhists in Asia and in the West. It explains their understanding of Buddhist theory and practice. These portraits are devastatingly accurate; and very funny, because of the total disconnect between the traditional Asian and Western Buddhists. If you have not spent time in Asia, with traditional Buddhists, this chapter may come as a shock; and is certainly worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book.

Briefly: Westerners take for granted that meditation is a main Buddhist practice, and that reading and understanding Buddhist texts is another. Traditionally, in Asia, almost no one ever meditated, and almost no one ever read religious texts with the intention of figuring out what they meant. This was true even in monasteries, never mind lay communities. In traditional Asia, virtually all Buddhist practice is aimed either at accumulating merit in order to have a better next life; or at influencing assorted gods and demons, whose actions have practical consequences for one’s health and wealth.

Much of “Western” Buddhism was developed in Asia by Asians

It is startling how much of “Western” Buddhism was invented in Asia, before 1950—before there was much Western interest in Buddhism. McMahan suggests, therefore, that we talk about “Buddhist modernism” rather than “Western Buddhism.”

On a later blog page, I will summarize some of this history, concentrating on modernist Theravada and Zen, and drawing on the historical research of Gil Fronsdal and Brooke Schedneck as well as David McMahan.

Modernist Buddhism hybridizes tradition with Western ideologies

McMahan explores in detail the way Buddhism has been altered to incorporate three major Western ideologies:

McMahan treats two other Western systems in less depth:

  • Psychology and psychotherapy
  • Political ideals: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, social justice

What I found most startling and useful in the book was seeing how deeply these five ideologies have been “read back” into Buddhism, so that they are mostly overlooked, and taken to be traditional Asian products.

Later in this series, I will go into more detail about the influences of each of these Western ideologies on Buddhist modernism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas

Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?

The five Western ideologies are also not altogether alien to Buddhism. They do resonate with some aspects of Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist modernism, those resonating aspects are highlighted, while parts of Buddhism that contradict Western ideas are suppressed. Quoting McMahan:

This “taking up” of selected elements of a tradition in the context of another tradition is how religions develop, adapt, change, and come to occupy different ideological niches from the ones they evolved in. The taking up and development of Buddhism in the context of [Western ideologies] has created a new Buddhism, a hybrid that is adapted to all [of them] and is able to both complement and criticize them. (p. 116)

Buddhist modernism is attractively familiar

Buddhist modernism has been successful because it makes sense to Westerners.

That’s not surprising: much of it is our own culture, repackaged and passed back to us.

Familiar ideas about individual access to ultimate truth (a core theme of Protestantism), social justice, and emotional health are dressed up with Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan words, and supported with highly selective quotations from Buddhist scripture. That makes them intriguingly exotic, yet comfortably unthreatening.

The West has its own powerful critiques of each modern ideology

The ideologies that were mixed into Buddhist modernism are each problematic. There are powerful Western critiques of each of these five Western ideas.

When these ideologies are disguised as “timeless Eastern wisdom,” we may accept them uncritically. Repackaging questionable Western theories as Buddhism might get them past filters when they shouldn’t.

New forms of Buddhism address new problems

It’s useful to think of each new form of Buddhism as trying to solve particular problems that crop up in a particular place and time.

Much of Buddhist modernism developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Asia, to solve major Asian political problems. Western military power threatened colonial domination, and the influx of Protestant Christian missionaries threatened to replace Asian cultures. Buddhist modernism was created largely to help fight off these threats.

That motivation is irrelevant to us now. It’s worth asking how Buddhism has been shaped by anti-colonialsm, and whether a religion created with that agenda is still a good fit.

More recently, Buddhism in the West has developed in response to other problems. One is the widespread loss of faith in Christianity, potentially leading to the “disenchantment of the world,” a sense of meaninglessness, and nihilist despair and rage. Another was a series of political and social crises, addressed by the “engaged Buddhist” movement.

It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)

It is worth asking whether Buddhism is an effective way of addressing current political and social problems. (I’m not sure, but I doubt it.)

It is worth asking, what other problems might Buddhism help with now?

What kind of Buddhism do you want?

I think that Buddhist modernism is on the whole a good thing. But I can’t swallow it whole.

For each of the five Western ideologies that Buddhism has incorporated, I will point out ways I find them problematic, in Western terms.

I will also sketch some extremely tentative ideas about how Buddhism may develop in the world we live in now. It’s a world that has some new spiritual problems, emerging in the past couple decades, which we’re only beginning to recognize. I’ll point out some of those, and suggest ways Buddhism might be relevant.