On criticizing fellow Buddhists

When I was about 25, I had published some scientific papers, and was getting to be known in an international academic community. I was full of piss and vinegar; testosterone, rebellion, and altogether too much cleverness. I wanted to tear down an intellectual establishment that seemed corrupt, hidebound, and befogged by holy dogmas and hidden assumptions. I was quite rude, in print, to researchers whose ideas I thought were WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Then I started going to conferences, and I met many of the scientists who I previously knew only from their academic publications. Most of them were nothing like what I had imagined based on their work. Their personalities did not seem to match up with their writings.

I remember in particular meeting one researcher whose papers I had savaged. He was kind and friendly. It turned out that we had a shared love of birds, and we had an enjoyable discussion of corvids [ravens and their allies]. I felt quite ashamed, but also grateful for having learned something.

I’ve just been at the 2012 Buddhist Geeks Conference, and had something of the same experience. Some Buddhist leaders, whose work I’ve criticized on this blog, are clearly good guys. Seeing them in person, or interacting with them, gives a very different sense than their writing.

This makes me want to be extra-careful in future to avoid saying anything nasty about anyone. Especially those I now know are fine people; but also those I haven’t met, who are likely to turn out to be fine people too.

The Buddhist Borg

There is, however, a great danger here. This well-meaning impulse is central to the dysfunctional dynamics of Consensus Buddhism. Consensus Buddhism suppresses debate and dissent by declaring discord unseemly. It’s not nice to disagree; can’t we all just get along? We are all Buddhists here, after all!

If I decided that, since I like some Consensus leaders, that I should not quarrel with their ideas, or criticize their activities, I would have been assimilated into the Consensus. “Consensus” means you never say: that guy is WRONG WRONG WRONG. That would be aggressive, and aggression is the #1 Buddhist sin.

In academia, disagreement is understood as the engine of progress. In traditional Buddhism, debate (often vitriolic) is often also understood as a method of learning.

The Buddhist Geeks Conference was as un-Consensus-y as non-traditional Buddhism gets. But even there, hardly anyone was willing to disagree about anything. That would not have been polite. We’re all part of a shiny innovative hip Buddhist movement, right? It’s new and exciting and maybe fragile, and we want to be supportive. We don’t want to be the one who points out unpleasant truths.

The Cool Club

I feel another emotional dynamic at work. I am starting to have some influence in modernist Buddhist circles. Some Buddhist leaders now talk with me as a near-peer. This is enjoyable, because I like them and they are interesting. It’s also good for my ego: Hooray! Now I’m somebody—people in the Cool Club think so!

If I cared more about this, I would now start politicking to become a member of the Inner Circle of Buddhist leadership. Some public flattery, support for a few dubious political positions, a little insincere friendliness; I can play that game. Go along to get ahead.

The cost, to all modernist Buddhists, of there being an Inner Circle, is that disagreements among its membership are suppressed.

Calibrating criticism

Ideally, in productive disagreement, we are uninhibited about attacking each other’s ideas, without attacking each other as people. We don’t take criticism of our ideas as criticism of ourselves. We can disagree fiercely in a public forum, and then have fun going out for a beer together.

Unfortunately, reality is not always ideal. We may not always have quite enough emotional maturity to take attacks impersonally. And, actually, we don’t have selves that are separate from our ideas and activities.

Knowing that our ideological opponents may not always be quite ideally mature, we may pull our punches. Out of compassion, we may politely pass over their mistakes. Then we become part of the problem.

I can’t see any resolution to this difficulty. The best we can do is try to constantly re-calibrate how sharp our criticism should be, balancing the urgent need to shake things up against the desire to avoid unnecessary offense. We have to accept that we’ll sometimes get it wrong.

I do want to tear apart Consensus Buddhism as a hegemonic political force. Inevitably, if anyone pays any attention—and especially if we actually start to weaken it—some people will feel hurt, angry, and/or bewildered. I’d rather they weren’t; but I’m not willing to shut up to avoid that.