Consensus Buddhism is what most Westerners think of as “Buddhism.” It consists of simple meditation techniques, modern liberal morality, minimal doctrine, and clouds of vague niceness.
It has more in common with Unitarian Universalism than with any traditional Buddhism. It is a fusion of 1980s American pop spirituality (the “New Age”) with elements of simplified, modernized Buddhisms that were devised in Asia in the 1950s specifically for export to the West.
Consensus Buddhism was the politically dominant brand of “Buddhism” in America roughly from 1985 to 2015. For its adherents, it was mostly harmless and mildly beneficial, even if rather limp. However, its leaders sought to either subordinate or extinguish all other forms of Buddhism.
They were surprisingly successful. In particular, Consensus leaders almost completely suppressed modern Vajrayana. That is the Buddhism Vividness advocates; and that is why I wrote about Consensus Buddhism.
I began blogging about the Consensus in 2011, because I saw signs that its political hegemony was starting to crumble around the edges. This was exciting; maybe space would open up for other Buddhisms. I had started to write a book on the topic, but events were moving too fast, so I had to blog them in real time.
My sense that the Consensus was beginning to fall apart proved accurate. Other new, modern Buddhisms successfully claimed space and mind-share. And the Consensus’ own leaders publicly recognized that their grasp was slipping. By 2015, it was over.
That makes this book I half-wrote about Consensus Buddhism, mainly in 2009–2012, less significant than it was then. I haven’t finished it because other things I write about now seem more important.
Those who fail to learn Buddhist history may be doomed to repeat it, though. Consensus Buddhism gained vast political power because it addressed the problems of meaning faced by leftish Baby Boomers during its heyday. Those problems haven’t gone away, although they’ve changed somewhat. Buddhism post-Consensus must devise new approaches to those issues, and unless we understand how the Consensus failed, we are likely to make similar mistakes.
Major topics covered in the half-book are:
How Buddhism modernized in Asia, starting in the 1850s. I promise you will find this startling!
How and why modern Buddhism incorporated major Western ideologies: Protestantism, Romanticism, scientism, liberalism, and psychologism.
Various theories of “meditation” and “enlightenment.” Despite fictionalized history, these were largely invented in the twentieth century, drawing heavily on European ideas.
I drew on three key texts:
David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism opened my eyes to the extent of Western ideological influence in Asian Buddhism.
Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism is a manifesto of Consensus Buddhism by one of its main architects.
The “Open Letter of the Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers” is another, much shorter manifesto, more clearly laying out their political agenda.
The title One Dharma illustrates the “Consensus” in “Consensus Buddhism”—a term I invented. The book’s argument is that all forms of Buddhism should be subsumed and consolidated according to the author’s understanding of what Buddhism should be. Rigid political consensus was required to accomplish that.
An early sign that the Consensus was crumbling was dissent at an indoctrination camp held in 2011.