Comments on “Consensus Buddhism: what's left”

Add new comment

Greg 2015-10-26

One thing that I don’t remember you touching upon: it seemed to me that the Consensus Buddhism was also undermined by waves that the Daniel Ingram “hardcore” movement made a few years ago.

David Chapman 2015-10-26

Greg — I think I’m too close to the subject matter to write a history of the decline and fall of Consensus Buddhism. That would be a valuable and interesting topic to research and understand and present. Maybe you would like to take on that project?

The Consensus, rhetorically, defined itself as “modern, Western Buddhism,” against “traditional Buddhism,” which meant the Asian nationalist export products. It positioned itself as the only alternative to those, by definition. If you did modern Buddhism, you were part of the Consensus. (It was a big friendly family that included everyone with a modern approach.) But you had to do it their way, or you were a Bad Consensus Buddhist. There was intense social and memetic pressure to both to remain part of the Consensus and to conform to it.

I tentatively date the beginning of the end to 2005, when Brad Warner published Hardcore Zen. Apparently it’s a complete coincidence that Daniel Ingram also used the word “Hardcore” in his title a little later, and they both feel that their approaches are quite different and shouldn’t be lumped.

However, both presented coherent mainstream modernist alternatives to the Consensus, and there hadn’t been any of those at all since about 1990. Once people saw that alternatives were possible, the thought-space hegemony started to crack.

People for whom the Consensus would be attractive would not have been attracted to “hardcore,” in which case they may not have really been in competition. So maybe it’s not that the Consensus was undermined itself in terms of its operation, but that people realized other modern approaches to Buddhism are possible.

Maybe, too, the use of “hardcore” is not a coincidence, in that both teachers are from Gen X, whereas the Consensus is a Boomer creation. I do have a series of posts planned about generational issues in American Buddhism. One of the main questions is “why did Gen X Buddhism happen so late, and so weakly?” The Boomers created Consensus Buddhism in the 70s and 80s, when they were in their 30s. Why didn’t Gen X create a distinctive Buddhism in the 90s?

Tentatively, I think the problem was that Gen X Buddhists tacitly accepted the bogus traditional-vs-modern dichotomy, which left no room for anything new.

I would guess — and here’s one place some historical research would be useful — that this was exploded by internet forums, as Gen X Buddhists started to realize that it was not just “me” that didn’t like either brand, but that “lots of us” felt the same way.

Gen X Buddhism is pretty muted, though, and hasn’t gone beyond minor stylistic differences to distinctive content. I fear that it may be too late for Gen X to innovate significantly now. Hopes for the future of American Buddhism probably ride on the Millenials—or even the next generation.

Alf 2015-10-30

I finding your posts on this subject really interesting. I’d heard vague connections between theosophy and buddhism, but didn’t think it was of any significance because I assumed probably like many others that there was a solid monastic meditation tradition in East Asia, and that theosophy was just going to use it to add respectability or authority.
I’d thought theosophy was largely a project to create an artificial global religion coming from the upper classes of Europe and America, but these strains of buddhism you describe seem to be subsumed into that effort, even if inadvertently.

5GhostFist 2015-11-02

David,

Are you familiar with Dharma Punx/ Against the Stream. It’s a community founded by Noah Levine, that seems to very intentionally be a Gen X Buddhism. Brad Warner participates.

David Chapman 2015-11-02

Thanks, I know only a little about it. What makes it distinctively Gen X? How does it differ from Boomer Buddhism? (I couldn’t see much, but I took only a quick look.)

michau 2015-11-05

As for the whole “Consensus Buddhism” thing, I enjoy reading this blog series, but I keep wondering why our experiences are so extremely different. It feels as if you’re writing from an alternative universe.

When I got interested in Buddhism a few years ago, I didn’t know much, so I randomly came accross different Buddhist groups that were available near the places I lived. This way I got to know several communities: Triratna, SN Goenka’s vipassana courses and a relatively traditional Theravada group lead by a Norwegian monk. I found no traces of anything that would fit in the “consensus Buddhism” definition. When I tried to read more about Buddhism on the net, the most popular website with the Pali Canon (accesstoinsight.org) contained articles by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and the traditional Canadian monk Yuttadhammo was the top answerer on the most popular Buddhist Q&A site (buddhism.stackexchange.org) - again, no signs of the “consensus”. And even when I took a look at the 1980 book “Zen-Dawn in the West”, written by the influential American Zen master Philip Kapleau, I hardly found anything that resembles the “consensus”: he clearly differentiated Buddhist meditation from psychotherapy, spoke of rebirth and boddhisattvas as actual things, not mythology that “you aren’t expected to believe in”, and about the path towards no-self, not about “self-realisation and being one with the universe”.

So I see no traces of the supposed “monopoly”, which wanted to “supress” other branches of Buddhism, not only now, but even in the past. And Triratna and Goenka centres I mentioned before aren’t new in the West either, they have been here for many years, so it isn’t some recent development.

David Chapman 2015-11-05

Consensus Buddhism is mainly confined to the United States (although it does have tentacles elsewhere). None of the groups you mention are Consensus.

It was invented in the 1980s, so Kapleau pre-dates it.

Many people who comment on this blog have said that they agree that the Consensus is dominant in the US.

michau 2015-11-05

I see, thanks! I actually asked some more specific questions about it on buddhist.stackexchange recently: http://buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/12395/was-there-a-period-when-consensus-buddhism-buddhist-romanticism-dominated-bu
Maybe you’d like to answer it? I guess there’s no better person to do it. :)

Mantasm 2016-01-26

I’d like to see a post about the “Dark Night of the Soul” in modern vipassana. I have noticed that my practice involves similar periods, but it doesn’t have to be a huge problem. I find St. John a good read, but I have a Catholic background. It does seem strange to import a metaphor from a completely different tradition to explain something ostensibly “Buddhist”. I’ve emailed some people about this, and I think it has to do with the fundamental difference between Buddhist and Christian spiritual practices:

The Christian aims to experience knowledge of a personal deity; no matter how vast and incomprehensible it is, there is a personality to be communed with ( although St. John’s “todo y nada” is interesting in this context. He wasn’t exactly a “regular Joe Christian”). Buddhists usually mention the cessation of “Self” and illusion as the goal, or at least finding a different relationship to our identities and the world. I imagine that anyone raised in Christianity who attempts the most powerful vipassana methods will be in for some dark nights if they haven’t thoroughly examined what they are looking for ( and isn’t that interesting, that perhaps such a period involves not only the deconstruction of the meditator’s self identity and expectation, but also the “death” of the hope for any salvation from a transcendent figure ? )

Add new comment:

You can use some Markdown and/or HTML formatting here.

Optional, but required if you want follow-up notifications. Used to show your Gravatar if you have one. Address will not be shown publicly.

If you check this box, you will get an email whenever there’s a new comment on this page. The emails include a link to unsubscribe.