Nice Buddhism & ethics: a reply

Barbara O’Brien, the official Buddhist Guide, has written a reply to my post about “Nice Buddhism.” (Thanks, Barbara, for the commentary!) I couldn’t quite get my response into the comment length limit, so I’m posting it here.

She said she didn’t recognize this “nice” “consensus Buddhism,” and suggested that I was only aware of Western Buddhists with superficial practice experience. I hesitate to name names—but “consensus Buddhism” is presented by, for example, the Insight Meditation Society teachers, Lama Surya Das, and Thich Nhat Hanh. None of them could be accused of having a superficial practice, I hope! However, their popular works do seem “nice” to me; and this is the Buddhism most Westerners are first exposed to.

In this blog series I’ll present a brief history of “nice Buddhism,” drawing on the work of David McMahan, Gil Fronsdal, and Brooke Schedneck. The short version is that, in Thailand, by the 1960s, traditional Buddhist ethics were already being mixed with Protestant Christian ethics, under pressure from colonial missionaries. That made it particularly easy for the founders of Western Consensus Buddhism to modernize it.

O’Brien especially objects to my statement that “traditional Buddhism doesn’t have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.” That may have been overly broad, but I think it is broadly defensible. [Note: I added the word “distinctively” after originally publishing this, to clarify a possible misinterpretation.]

Talking about “Buddhist ethics” can be misleading. There are many Buddhisms, and many different ethical approaches within them. I think that what most Western Buddhists think of a “Buddhist ethics” hasn’t got much to do with any traditional Asian Buddhist ethics, and much more to do with liberal Western Christian and humanist ethics.

There’s an outstanding essay by Jose Cabezon about Buddhists sexual ethics that explains this. He argues:

  1. What almost all Western Buddhists think they know about Buddhist sexual ethics is mistaken
  2. Among other things, traditional Buddhist sexual ethics involves detailed lists of right and wrong actions, which O’Brien (like most Western Buddhists) explicitly denies in her post
  3. As Buddhists, we ought to consider seriously what Buddhist texts actually do say about sexual ethics
  4. What they actually do say is absolutely wrong, and we should reject it.

This is not, I think, a problem only with Buddhist sexual ethics, but a broader one.

O’Brien objects to my blaming niceness on Baby Boomers. I don’t think I did that, exactly! However, lots of people have observed that Buddhism appeals more to the Boomer generation than to younger ones. Exactly why, and what to do about it, are not yet clear. (This appears to be a major topic of the current Maha Teachers Council I’ve been writing about.) I suggest that “Boomeritis” is part of the problem: the inability to recognize that some “nice” values (first common in that generation) are not universal.

Traditional and modern Buddhism: an illusory duopoly

Buddhism in the West has settled into two main camps: traditional and modern. They now coexist peacefully, but both actively suppress the alternatives that are neither traditional nor modern.

I think traditional and modern approaches are both unworkable, in ways that may lead to their extinction in this century. That means other alternatives are critical if we want Buddhism to survive.

Traditional and modern: underlying questions and answers

“How should Buddhism be? Why should it be that way?”

Traditionalism and modernism are ways of answering those questions.

The traditionalist answer is: “It has always been our way. It was set up that way by Shakyamuni Buddha. Other versions of Buddhism are degenerations, caused by people changing the original form. They mixed it with other religions, added their own made-up stuff, or only got part of Buddha’s message, or they garbled it. We’ve got the complete, original thing.”

There are two problems with this:

  • Why should we believe that the original thing is the best? Couldn’t some changes be improvements? Unless you believe Buddha is God, there’s no reason to think he got everything right.
  • Factually, all claims to originality are false. We don’t know what the earliest form of Buddhism was like, because its texts were lost. We do know for sure that it was different from any current form.

Modernism tries to answer “why should Buddhism be our way?” by appealing to general, abstract principles:

  • It’s rational/scientific
  • You can verify it by using your intuitive, true self to connect directly to ultimate reality
  • It is based on universal principles of ethics and justice
  • It harms no one and seeks to benefit all beings (by being very nice)

This has two similar problems:

  • Not everyone accepts such principles.

Many people reject scientific rationality. Many people don’t think there is any way to get special access to reality. Many people doubt the universality of ethical and justice claims. Many people don’t want to be saints.

  • It probably isn’t true that modernist Buddhism can be justified according to such principles.

Claims that Buddhism is (or can be) rational or scientific seem dubious. Meditation is a great thing, but it probably has nothing to do with intuition, a supposed true self, or “ultimate reality.” Buddhism doesn’t seem to have anything more to do with justice than any other religion does. If you want to benefit people, Buddhism isn’t the most obvious place to start.

Forming a duopoly

Traditionalism and modernism are naturally opposed to each other:

  • “Modernized Buddhism is fake, inauthentic, and immoral,” says traditionalism.
  • “Traditional Buddhists are superstitious, patriarchal, waste their time on meaningless rituals, don’t do anything practical to help the oppressed, and mostly don’t meditate,” says modernism.

Currently, in the West, neither has enough political power to suppress the other. So, somewhere around 20 years ago, they made an implicit truce. In public, they mostly avoid dissing each other. (This is part of the Western Buddhist Consensus: “we must make respectful gestures toward traditional Buddhists, although privately we think they’re terribly wrong.”)

Mixing traditional and modern

Many Buddhist groups are both traditional and modern, mixing elements of each, and using both traditional and modern justifications. This creates a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern. Such mixtures are probably more widely useful than either extreme. I explain in a later post that the political power of the Consensus, plus market dynamics, have made it more difficult to occupy this middle ground.

Neither traditional nor modern

In the 1980s, the duopoly had not yet formed, so there was a much greater freedom to experiment with alternative approaches than in the 1990s.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training (which was my gate into Buddhism) is an excellent example.

  • Shambhala certainly was nothing like any tradition. In fact, its founder said it wasn’t Buddhism at all, but a “secular path of meditation”—although it could also have been described as “Dzogchen without compromises.” Its outer form was borrowed from Werner Erhard’s “est” seminars.
  • On the other hand, Trungpa Rinpoche made no attempt to justify Shambhala in terms of modern principles. It isn’t rational or scientific. It has strange rituals that have no explanation, it invokes “ancestral war gods” as invisible helpers and ideals, and it manipulates energy in ways materialists might be uncomfortable with. Its teachings on “enlightened society” are based on “natural hierarchy” and the glory of kings. It’s not particularly nice, and Trungpa Rinpoche certainly wasn’t nice at all.

Shambhala Training worked extremely well for me, and for thousands of other people. But it couldn’t survive the imposition of the duopoly unchanged.

The two sides are united in their condemnation of possibilities that are neither traditional nor modern:

  • For traditionalists, third alternatives are also inauthentic and immoral.
  • For modernists, third alternatives also fail to accord with their high principles.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s successor has revised Shambhala to make it both more traditional, and more modern. He’s added a lot of traditionalist Sutric teachings (which seem to me incompatible with its Dzogchen roots). He’s also worked to make it “more accessible” or user-friendly, which I suspect involves de-emphasizing anything that contradicts modern principles.

A new opening for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhism?

Traditional and modern Buddhists divvied up control of the Buddhist media (magazines and book publishers) between them. From the early 1990s until recently, it was difficult for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhists to get heard. For various reasons—including the internet—that’s changing.

In this blog series, I’m suggesting that the duopoly is starting to lose its grip. Exhibit A would be Brad Warner. He is neither traditional nor modern:

  • He is against hierarchy and institutions.
  • He doesn’t think “because we’ve always done it that way” is any sort of justification.
  • He rejects Zen’s traditional origin myth (about a continuous line of transmission via Mahākāśyapa).
  • His teaching stories draw on current pop culture, not ancient history.
  • He goes out of his way to avoid appearing holy.

On the other hand:

  • He isn’t nice, and he wants to keep psychotherapy and New Age stuff out of Buddhism.
  • He gets his answers from a very strange book written by some guy who died 750 years ago.
  • He performs complicated rituals with hours of chanting in Japanese, wearing a traditional monk costume with a ridiculous bib that makes him look like he’s about to eat a lobster.

Alternative answers

I suspect that there have long been many little-known approaches to Buddhism that were neither traditional nor modern. To help loosen the duopoly, it would be good to make a list of them. Can you help? Please post examples in the comment section, below.

Other approaches will have different answers to “why should Buddhism be that way.” Here are some alternatives to “because Buddha said so” and “because of our universal principles.”

“Because it works.”

As an engineer, I like this answer a lot, and it seems to have new resonance recently. The Buddhist Geeks site often invokes this principle—naturally enough! Daniel Ingram, often interviewed there, has particularly championed it.

There’s an emerging “pragmatic dharma movement,” opposed to both traditionalism and modern Consensus Western Buddhism. It’s against ritual, hierarchy, institutions, and Asian cultural influences; it favors rationality, secularism, transparency, and popular Western culture. On the other hand, it’s also against niceness, psychotherapy, New Age junk, and talks about a return to original, core techniques that come out of ancient scriptures.

If there seems to be a lot of “against” in that, it might be because anyone who wants to operate outside the duopoly now has to explain forcefully that they are in neither camp, and why that’s OK—or else they will get assimilated or dismissed.

“It’s straight outta tha’ dharmakaya.”

The more I read Buddhist history, the more I realize Buddhism has constantly, drastically innovated, in spite of its rhetoric of continuity and tradition. So the question “why should we accept this new version” has always been hot. Usually, the answer is “it’s not new—it’s the original one,” and then some fake history is concocted to justify that.

Tibetan Buddhism allows “terma,” or revelations. It is explicit that these are new teachings that specifically address the new circumstances of the time when they are revealed. There are three different explanations for why this is OK.

The explanation I like is “it just popped out of the dharmakaya.” [Dharmakaya is creative, enlightened emptiness.] The Nyingma tradition regards this as the most correct of the three.

It’s a no-explanation explanation. “Here it is; there’s nothing more to say.”

Shambhala Training was a terma. It just popped into Trungpa Rinpoche’s head. There is no justification for it beyond that.

The Aro gTér, which I practice, is another terma. Aro is also neither traditional nor modern, for which it has been criticized from both sides.

“I like it.”

Many social theorists say the modern era is over. It ended sometime around 1980. Modernity was the period during which Western culture tried to find answers in universal founding principles. For various reasons (this is a big subject), it ended in failure.

In the post-1980 world, chaotic, kaleidoscopic fragments of culture recombine, according to patterns that have no universal justification. We have to learn to cope with the vertigo of no ultimate foundations. Perhaps not just to cope, but to revel in it.

In this world, the answer to “why?” can only be “because I like it.”

I like that answer, too.

“Nice” Buddhism

Consensus Western Buddhism is a religion of niceness.

Unfortunately, niceness does not define Buddhism, or have anything much to do with it. To give the impression that the Consensus is what Buddhism naturally should be, it has to suppress all alternatives (which are not about niceness).

Of course, the Consensus doesn’t describe itself as “nice.” Instead, it talks about peace, healing, sharing, caring, compassion, connection, concern, and ethics. Especially, it sells itself by implicitly claiming a monopoly on ethicalness. This is nonsense, for multiple reasons.

The hippies’ dilemma

The founders of the Consensus were ’60s hippies. The Consensus is based on the hippie ethos. In fact, it is a systematization of the hippie ethos—a conceptual framework for it.

The hippies rejected the ’50s system they grew up in, which was based on unquestioning respect for political and religious authority. But that left a vacuum, opening the door to a nihilistic void of dead-end drug use or mindless rage and rebellion.

What seemed to be needed was an alternative ethical framework; a positive vision which one could identify with and live by.

When things got ugly in the early ’70s, many hippies decamped for Asia, where the founders of the Consensus found Buddhism. Among other things, Buddhism seemed to offer an ethical system—one that seemed attractive, in some ways, at first.

So Consensus Buddhism consists mostly of ethics plus meditation. Meditation is hard, so for most Consensus Buddhists, ethics are probably the main draw.

Is this Buddhism, or Christianity?

Now the problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against.

So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with “nice” vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. Which is, roughly, “political correctness,” or the “green meme.”

This means Consensus Buddhism has more in common with progressive Christianity (Unitarian Universalism or Liberal Anglicanism) than it does with any form of Asian Buddhism. (Much of the ethical thinking that went into p.c. was done by liberal Christians. Socialism and psychotherapeutic ideology were other major sources.)

This similarity is at the level of fundamental principles and functions: the core engine, not the outer forms. Western Buddhism kept some traditional Buddhist mythology (in the same way liberal Christianity keeps some traditional mythology), but you aren’t expected to believe in it. It’s a bunch of “teaching stories,” not Truth.

Liberal Christians often do not believe in God, other than very abstractly maybe. They say that the important thing about Jesus is not his divinity, but his moral message.

Consensus Buddhists mostly don’t believe in Buddhas, either. The important thing is not enlightenment, but a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness.

We don’t need no stinkin’ system!

Consensus Buddhism is a framework, or container, to put ethics in. That’s something the hippies thought they needed, to replace the ’50s framework they rejected.

But younger generations mostly don’t want a framework. I, for example, share most (not quite all) of the values of political correctness. But I don’t feel any need to make an ideology out of it. I try to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and nothing more need be said. My ethics have almost nothing to do with my Buddhism.

I think this is why Consensus Buddhism is failing to reach the post-60s generations. (I have written about this on Approaching Aro, and on Meaningness, and will likely say more on this blog as well.)

Niceness sucks

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.

Exploiting ethical anxiety

There is a great hunger for ethical clarity—among young people as well as Boomers. Why?

Since 1960, half of Americans, and most Europeans, have abandoned traditional Christian ethics. We have entered an age of ethical ambiguity—and that is a good thing. Navigating ethical dilemmas without fixed rules is difficult, though.

Christianity deliberately promotes ethical anxiety. You are supposed to worry all the time about your own sinful nature, and the likelihood of eternal damnation. This is the religion’s main emotional hook.

Although practically no one really believes in damnation any more, the emotional undercurrent of ethical anxiety—”am I a good enough person?”—remains strong in our post-Christian culture. We have gotten rid of God but not Judgment. It’s just that the Judgement is self-judgement and social judgement, rather than Divine Judgement.

I think Consensus Buddhism appeals to, promotes, and exploits this anxiety. The subliminal message of much of its marketing is “if you belong to our religion, then you are allowed to feel you are ethical enough.”

I think ethical anxiety is entirely unnecessary and counter-productive. The question “am I good enough?” is self-centered and irrelevant. The valid ethical question is “what can I most usefully do in this situation?” Judgement is beside the point.

Buddhist membership as social signaling

Being seen as ethical is hugely valuable. We would rather have sex and do business with ethical people. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how ethical people are; unethical people are motivated to hide that. You can only know for sure once it is too late.

That means we rely on indirect clues. People display various ethics-related traits as signaling devices. Religious observance is one of the most important of these. In past centuries, “he’s a good Christian, he goes to church every week” would be a strong recommendation either as a business partner or as a husband. (Even though going to church probably had near-zero correlation with ethical behavior in reality.)

It seems to me that this is one of the most important functions of Western Buddhism nowadays. For perhaps a majority of Western Buddhists, “I am a Buddhist” means “I am a good person; I am aligned with an ethics of caring; you can rely on me to be emotional supportive.” (In some circles, this is an essential part of courtship rituals.) It does not necessarily mean that you know anything about Buddhism except that it is the religion of niceness, nor that you actually do anything Buddhist.

This “I am a Buddhist, therefore a good person” line is sanctimonious, smarmy, snooty, superior, self-important, and self-aggrandizing.

It is majorly off-putting to many who are serious about ethics, and drives them away from Buddhism.

While I share most of the values of Consensus Buddhists, I am repulsed by their relationship with those values, and their flaunting of that relationship.

Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers

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

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

  • Brad Warner spits on the Nice Buddhist Consensus. (More about this below.)
  • He is not a traditionalist. The Consensus wants to dismiss most alternatives as motivated by cultural conservatism.
  • His credentials are impeccable. He can’t be dismissed as a self-appointed “fake” teacher.
  • He has no significant organized following, so he can’t be dismissed as a cult leader.
  • He does not charge for teaching, so he can’t be dismissed as a spiritual entrepreneur. On the other hand, he criticizes the Consensus establishment for selling Dharma—a vulnerable point for them.
  • He has too large a following to ignore.
  • Especially, he appeals to people born after 1965, which the Consensus mostly doesn’t.

Here’s his own take on the shindig:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spitting on the Consensus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview

This page is an outline of my series on the “crumbling mainstream Western Buddhist consensus.”


Several pages introduce the theme of the series. I wrote these in a rush, as I explain in a preface, and they are not as worked-out as later posts.

I began with a summary, which is now out of date and needs revision, but may still be useful.

Brad Warner vs. the Maha Teachers

I started to post this series when news broke of the 2011 Garrison Institute Maha Teachers Conference. This was the first major get-together of the “Consensus” Western Buddhist establishment in ten years. I think this was important because it suggests that the “Consensus” recognizes that something is wrong with its approach.

I had been planning the series for a couple of years, but it wasn’t really ready to go yet. However, the Maha Conference prompted me to go ahead anyway.

“Nice” Buddhism

This page explains some of what “Consensus Western Buddhism” is; its key ideas, values, and worldview.

It also begins to explain why the consensus is in crisis.

Traditional and modern Buddhism: an oppressive duopoly

Consensus Western Buddhism is a “modernist” movement. So, it defines itself partly with reference to and against Buddhist traditionalism; and partly as aligned with other modernist movements.

Buddhism (in Asia as well as in the West) is now polarized into modernist and traditional versions. I suggest that neither of these is workable. Nor is some compromise or Middle Way between them the right answer.

Key texts

These have shaped my understanding of the current crisis in Western Buddhism:

I have a full page on The Making of Modern Buddhism, the most important influence on this series.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Buddhism sees itself as extremely inclusive and open to everyone. It’s blind to the reasons it actually excludes most people other than politically-correct white folks from the Baby Boom generation.

Its non-appeal to younger generations is the major sign of crisis.

The modernization of Buddhism in Asia: 1850-1950

I was astonished to discover that much of what we think of as “Western” Buddhism was created in Asia, more than a hundred years ago, under Western influence. This is not widely understood. Many things we think of as “traditional Buddhism” are authentically Asian, but were invented only recently. Knowing that they are not “timeless Eastern wisdom” makes it easier to ask whether we want them.

Buddhism vs. colonialism

Modern Buddhism was forged in Asia, in the late 1800s, as an ideological weapon against Western colonial aggression. It was surprisingly successful. But, we ought to ask whether a system developed for that purpose is ideal for our current needs.

Protestant Buddhism

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a “Protestant Buddhism” reform movement radically reshaped the religion. Based on core concepts from Protestant Christianity, this is the Buddhism we have today.

Mostly, I think these reforms were a good thing, but I’ll suggest that some Protestant Buddhist themes we take for granted may actually be unhelpful for our time.

Problems with scripture

Giving ultimate religious authority to scripture, rather than tradition, was one of the key Protestant Christian reforms. Protestant Buddhism has done the same. In both cases, this causes problems because scripture requires interpretation.

A new World Religion

A hundred years ago, it was politically imperative to remake Buddhism to conform to a particular European concept of what a “World Religion” was supposed to look like. A World Religion needed to be just like Christianity, only more modern (according to the 1900 standard of “modern.”) This concept is obsolete, but it has left deep marks on the Buddhism we have now. Some may now be unhelpful.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

This post describes the modernization of Zen under political, religious, and military pressure from the West.

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Mongkut, the King of Siam, radically reformed Theravada Buddhism to conform to Western ideas. His creation is the single largest contribution to contemporary Western Buddhism.

Modern meditation

The meditation techniques that are most widely practiced now were invented less than a hundred years ago, in Asia, under Western influence. Most traditional meditation techniques have been ignored or rejected because they didn’t conform to Western values.

I am not a traditionalist, and I don’t believe “older is better.” However, I think we’ve lost some valuable practices because they were unacceptable to Protestant missionaries or to 1970s hippies.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Modern vipassana, and mindfulness meditation, were invented recently in Thailand and Burma. That doesn’t make them “inauthentic,” in my view. It does show that these methods are not set in stone, straight from the Buddha’s mouth. So there is room for continued innovation, and also for recovery of earlier practices that might again be valuable.

The essence of all religions?

Many Western Buddhists take for granted a particular “mystical” understanding of what meditation does and how. I think this understanding is wrong. Also, although it may be traditional for some Buddhisms, it is certainly not at all the mainstream traditional Buddhism view. So it is at least open to question.

What got left out of “meditation”?

This post describes some of the many practices that modern Buddhism has abandoned, and why. I think the reasons are often not good ones, and we’ve lost much of value. Later posts suggest ways those practices can be recovered.

Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism

I discuss corpse practice, a particularly unacceptable traditional meditation method, and explain why it is valuable.

Effing the ineffable

The mystical (mis)interpretation of meditation is defended with claims that enlightenment experiences are ineffable. This post points out that ineffability cannot justify big metaphysical ideas. Those have to stand on their own two feet, not rely on vague pronouncements about the meaning of dramatic meditation experiences.

Who’s got it?

Metaphysical claims about meditation and enlightenment are often justified by pointing at what supposedly-enlightened people say. Unfortunately, they say quite different things. Also unfortunately, we have not good way of telling who is enlightened.

The quest for the True Self

Modern Buddhism often explains meditation as a method for examining internal experience to see through the false self (or ego), to find the True Self. I suggest that this is a mistake—not least because there is no True Self.

The quest for The Absolute

The monist (mis)interpretation of meditation sees enlightenment as unification with The Absolute, which is the Ultimate Truth, the undifferentiated One, the source of all goodness, and The Entire Universe. I suggest that there is no such thing. It’s actually the Christian God in disguise, and God is undead.

Monist meditation causes the problem it seeks to treat

The monist All-Is-One approach tries to connect a non-existent True Self with a non-existent Absolute. Both of these are vague abstractions. Meditating this way actively hinders the creation of concrete connections with real-world specifics.

So what is meditation, then?

Some Western Buddhists may be unable to conceive of any other explanation for meditation and enlightenment. In fact, traditional Buddhisms offer several. Here I sketch two. Neither is necessarily the right one, but this shows that there are non-monist alternatives.


Most traditional Buddhist practice is ritual. Ritual is unacceptable to modernism, and Western Buddhism mostly abandoned it. In this section, I explain the valuable functions of ritual; the reasons we don’t like it; and ways of overcoming those reasons. I suggest that we could reinvent Buddhist ritual in ways suitable for our time.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Renunciation, transformation, and Tantra

Western Buddhism is based mainly on modernized Theravada, whose fundamental principle is the renunciation of desire. Unfortunately, Westerners have zero interest in renunciation, so this doesn’t work well.

What Western Buddhists want is personal transformation. That’s an entirely different thing, requiring entirely different methods. Consensus Buddhism has incorporated non-Buddhist transformative methods, from psychotherapy and the New Age.

As it happens, there is a branch of Buddhism that aims at transformation, through enjoyment, namely Tantra (Vajrayana). It was designed specifically for lay people, who have no interest in giving up sensory pleasure. I suggest that Tantric Buddhism would be a better starting point for Western Buddhism. There are serious obstacles to that, but I hope they can be overcome.

Unfortunately, Tantra is not nice. That means it has been actively suppressed by the Consensus.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Buddhist Perennialism: enforced consensus

Perennialism” is the claim that all religions are essentially the same.

Buddhist Perennialism is the claim that all Buddhist traditions have a shared essence, and that core is what is really important. Whatever is not shared must be culturally-specific, is irrelevant to the West, and should be abandoned.

Buddhist Perennialism is one of the major strategies the Consensus establishment has used to suppress alternatives. It implies that anything outside the Consensus is conservative traditionalism, and any opposition to the Consensus is a nasty, narrow, sectarian attack on the sacred shared Buddhist core.

Perennialism also suggests that Buddhism has essentially the same message as other religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism. This is used as a strategy to white-wash importing dubious Christian and Hindu values and concepts into Buddhism.

Problems with priests

This section discusses the difficulties Western Buddhism has had with the teacher/student relationship. I look at Protestant Christianity as a model.

What Buddhist ethics?

Consensus Buddhism equals mindfulness meditation plus ethics. Here I express skepticism that Buddhism has anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.

Consensus Buddhism: 1960—2005

This section traces the history of “Consensus” Buddhism—the modern Western mainstream. Understanding how it became what it is helps understand its limitations, and where we might go next.

If I ever get out of here

Consensus Buddhism was created by self-described hippies. This post looks at their early history, in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Saving the world

I see all forms of Buddhism as solutions to social and cultural problems that arise at particular times. This post looks at the problems experienced by the Baby Boom creators of Consensus Buddhism, and explains how they tried to solve them.

Trungpa Rinpoche & Nice Buddhism

One of the main motivations for the creation of the Consensus was to avoid any repeat of the Chögyam Trungpa debacle.  Trungpa Rinpoche was a “controversial” Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who did some things he probably shouldn’t have. His appointed successor did worse things.

Apart from the actual harm done, this was seen as disastrous negative publicity for Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism). Part of the founding self-definition of the Consensus is we are nothing like Trungpa, and we’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Especially, we are going to ensure that everybody who’s allowed to teach Buddhism is extremely nice.

Unfortunately, “niceness” is incompatible with most of Buddhism. That meant that most of Buddhism was collateral damage when the establishment suppressed any possible manifestations of Trungpa-like-ness.

The Dharmasala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences

The current Western Buddhist establishment seems to have been pulled together as a political bloc at the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference.

Its main theme was “Let’s stomp on anyone who might do anything alarming.”

Heartening signs of impending collapse

Here I collect various indications that the Consensus is breaking down, mainly not because of attack from outside, but due to its own internal contradictions.

Several of the leaders of the establishment seem to have figured out that Consensus Western Buddhism doesn’t work even for them. And it’s glaringly obvious that it isn’t working for the post-Boomer generations.

Buddhism after systems

Here I expand on the argument I’ve made earlier that the biggest threat to Buddhism is the contemporary wholesale rejection of all systems, and the “shattering” of ideologies by consumer culture.

If Buddhism is to survive, it may have to adapt to a world in which no one “belongs to” any religion; in which we all assemble fluid identities out of disparate fragments of culture.

That is a world in which no “mainstream” or “consensus” is possible. “Buddhism” will disintegrate: not just into its many schools and lineages, but into its innumerable diverse practices, theories, and ways of talking.

This may be unfortunate, but I think it’s inevitable. Trying to hold systems together is doomed. So the question is, what can we do to best help those who will inherit this fragmentation?

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Summary

We may be at a momentous turn in Buddhist history.

Since the early 1990s, “Buddhism” in the West has been defined in a narrow, peculiar way.

Narrow: Consensus Western Buddhism has actively suppressed competing alternatives. This was a deliberate policy, and its success was a striking political accomplishment on the part of the creators of the forced consensus.

Peculiar: it is almost unrecognizably different from traditional Buddhism in Asia. (Its relationship with Asian Buddhism is complicated; I will sketch some of its history, which helps explain its present, and suggests future directions.)

In this blog series, I suggest that Consensus Western Buddhism has been bad for two reasons:

Doesn’t work for most people: it is based on a worldview and values that appeal only to a particular social group. Roughly, the “green” market segment of the Western middle-to-upper-middle class (“Bobos,” “LOHAS“), mainly from the Baby Boom generation.

Suppressed alternatives: the manufactured consensus has marginalized other Buddhist approaches that could have been useful to a broader range of people. The main problem with the consensus is its hegemonic rule.

Fortunately, it appears that the consensus is starting to break down.

“What next?” seems the critical question now. There are two parts to this: how will the Consensus react, and how can those of us outside it be helpful?

The natural reaction of a hegemonic consensus, when it perceives that it is losing its grip on its boundaries, is to try to preserve itself via force. It would be nice to think that Buddhists would not do this. The impermanence of the self is supposedly central to Buddhism—let it go! Buddhist history is not encouraging on this point, unfortunately. Buddhist establishments have frequently suppressed dissent with force.

Still, I am hopeful that the Western Buddhist establishment will recognize the irony, and will be willing to let go their grip. But only if they see a workable alternative future.

For those of us outside the Consensus, its new weakness is an opportunity to promote our own alternative agendas. And, frankly, we may want to actively encourage its collapse.

But we have a bigger responsibility: not only to our particular outside-consensus lineages, but also to ensuring the survival of Buddhism period. That means developing a broad view of what Buddhism now is, how it got that way, and they ways it can work over the next few decades.

The creators and enforcers of the Western Buddhist Consensus are trapped inside their own narrow worldview, and cannot see out. Some of them now realize that, and they are actively groping in the dark for the ways out of their cell. Suggestions shouted from outside may help.

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Preface

Yikes! Buddhist history is moving faster than I expected.

A couple years ago, I noticed that the Mainstream Western Buddhist Consensus had started to crumble at the edges. Younger teachers broke out of the rigid psychotherpeutically-correct Nice Buddhism model, and some senior Western teachers who had been pushing it for 15 years were starting, tentatively but publicly, to question it.

That was exciting, because I think the enforced consensus has been a Really Bad Thing. I predicted that this would accelerate and burst into the open in a couple of years.

So I started writing a book about it. (You can take the boy out of academia, but you can’t take academia out of the boy.) Fascinating as I found this subject, though, it seemed less important than the other two books I was writing. So all I have so far is a pile of half-baked notes and scattered thoughts.

It now appears that the “Maha Teachers Council” may be the venue where the creators of the Consensus are strategizing about their problem.  (Hat tip: NellaLou, who discusses this in detail in her Buddhist blog.) Their conference is happening right now, and it’s going to be written up in the Fall 2011 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.

So, if I’m going to write about this usefully, it has to be now. Instead of a carefully-researched book, I am going to do a blog series: a big brain dump of semi-digested ideas, odd facts, and wild-assed guesses.

I don’t like that. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I like to check all my facts carefully, survey the existing literature exhaustively, search for alternative explanations, and make sure my arguments are completely coherent. There isn’t time for that, so I am going to attempt to blog with reckless abandon, and clean up the mess later if need be. I apologize in advance for the certainty that I will get some things wrong.

The crumbling Western Buddhist consensus is a politically sensitive topic. I will suggest that some people have done some bad things. It’s especially important to get your facts straight when doing that—and this has been the main reason I have held off on writing about this before.

From the start, I want to be clear that I do not and will not condemn any individual or group. Everyone has mixed good and bad motivations, but I think that the creation and enforcement of the Consensus was mainly misguided rather than an evil plan for world domination.