“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.
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.