One Dharma. Whose?

Cover of Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism is a manifesto of Consensus Buddhism.

It is also an introduction to Buddhism, and a practice manual; but I am interested only in the manifesto aspect. This is not a review; I am not concerned with evaluating the book as something that might be useful to someone now. Rather, I treat it as a historical document. Its significance is as a chess-move in the political program of a movement that is now—I hope—over. (And, as it was published ten years ago, Goldstein’s own view has probably evolved since.)

Introducing the cast

One Dharma is an oddly incoherent book. It is written in three different voices, with quite different agendas.

Most of the book is a practical introduction to Consensus Buddhism (which Goldstein calls “One Dharma”), written for beginners. Its author is a warm, wise, mature mentor. I’ll call him “Goldstein.” Goldstein’s excellence as a meditation teacher shows clearly, and I like and respect him, although the Buddhism he teaches does not appeal to me.

The book’s Introduction is a manifesto, proclaiming a political dogma. Its audience seems to be American teachers of Buddhism. I’ll call the booming, triumphant voice of its author “Goldstein.” I don’t care for him much.

The third voice, “joseph,” is prone to confusion, anxiety, and doubt. He is honest about not being able to make sense of Buddhism—unlike Goldstein—and that is to his credit. His audience is probably just the author himself; it’s not clear what use joseph could be to anyone else.

This combination makes the book pretty incoherent. I would like to write about just Goldstein’s manifesto. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely separate it from the other two threads.

The frame-story

One Dharma’s first chapter tells a story that encapsulates the book’s message, its virtues, and its failings. It is the tale of how the book came to be.

An existential crisis

This frame-story is set in 1992, at Dai Bosatsu Monastery in New York. There, joseph is on a two-month group retreat with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher of his friend Lama Surya Das.

As the story opens, joseph is having an existential crisis. Rinpoche said something that seems right to joseph, but that contradicts the Theravada Buddhism he had practiced for 25 years.

For more than a month, joseph agonizes in meditation. He is “impaled on the sharp horns of a spiritual dilemma”: “Which is right?” and “How could I know?” “I felt as though I had swallowed a red-hot iron ball that I could neither digest nor expel.” (p. 9; all page numbers are from the Kindle edition.)

Revelation at Dai Bosatsu

At long last, Goldstein has a revelation. He realizes that he can “embrace a variety of perspectives, seeing the different views and methods as skillful means for liberation, rather than as the statements of absolute truth… For each of us at different times, different traditions, philosophical constructs, and methods may serve us, either because of temperament, background, or capacities (p.11)… The highest teaching is not one view or another, but what actually works for each of us at any given time. If we understand the various points of view as different skillful means to liberate our minds, then we can actually use each of them to complement each other, rather than seeing them in opposition. (p. 190)”

Both Goldstein and some reviewers of One Dharma suggest that this is a unique American pragmatism. It is the “can do, whatever works” attitude that made America great, and is the particularly American contribution to the development of Buddhism.

I greatly admire that American spirit, but Goldstein’s realization is actually one of the most basic teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It is particularly emphasized in the Nyingma school, to which Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche belonged. (Perhaps that is not a coincidence.)

According to the Nyingma, any Buddhist may practice several different yanas. Each yana is a complete system that can stand alone, and the views of the different yanas directly contradict each other. Yet each may also be most useful in particular circumstances. It is best to view them as varying methods, not absolute truths. In Goldstein’s words: “If we hold metaphysical views (metaphysics being that branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality) as statements of truth, conflict is inevitable, as we have seen in religious and ideological wars throughout history.” (p. 12)

In order to skillfully choose which yana to apply at a particular time, you must understand the differing fundamental principles of each one, how the practices of each yana flow from its principles, how and why these principles and practices contradict. Most of all, what each yana is good for: its “base” (the circumstances where it applies) and its “result” (where it can take you).

This critical point—when to apply which approach—is one Goldstein shows no understanding of.

The birth of a monster

Instead, at this moment in the story, the monster Goldstein bursts forth from Goldstein’s chest, spraying gore, and declares “We seek peaceful coexistence.” By which, of course, he means assimilation and domination of alternatives.

Completely ignoring Goldstein’s insight that different views and practices are valuable in different circumstances, Goldstein proclaims the One Dharma, which “is just this: experiencing the essential point common to all the teachings.” (p. 13) Goldstein’s multiplicity of methods has been supplanted by Goldstein’s single essential point.

And what is that? “In the One Dharma of emerging Western Buddhism, the method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion, the essence is wisdom.” (p. 13; italics in the original)

Immediately Goldstein replaces the powerful, specific, contradictory logics of the various yanas with abstract platitudes. Who could object to mindfulness, compassion, or wisdom? Yet how could such billowy clichés do any work in a tight spot?

It’s telling that joseph never gives us a clear explanation of what Nyoshul Khen’s contradiction was. All that matters to his story is that there was some contradiction—a circumstance that reduced him to helpless suffering. Perhaps Goldstein could have explored the specifics of the problem, but he got exploded before he had a chance. For Goldstein, the difficulty is invisible, because in One Dharma all contradictions are simply ignored.

That’s the end of the frame-story, and of the first chapter.

The manifesto

Goldstein’s manifesto is in the Introduction, before the first chapter.

I call it a “manifesto” partly because it sketches a political program, and partly for Goldstein’s grandiose language:

We are living in remarkable times. A genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth. (p. 1)

Beneath the differences of method and philosophy, there is a deep common vein of liberating wisdom that runs through all the lineages of Buddhism. Increased mutual understanding is slowly creating the rich and subtle tapestry of One Dharma. (p. 6)

Emerging from the fertile interaction of these ancient teachings is what we can now begin to call Western Buddhism. Not bound by Asian cultural constraints and strengthened by a society that encourages investigation, we are willing to take what is useful and beneficial from different traditions and add it to our own practice experience. (p. 2)

The implications of One Dharma for both Buddhism and our own culture are enormous. A wise cross-fertilization of spiritual practices can only deepen and broaden our understanding. It will foster not only tolerance, but also genuine respect and unity, as we each find from the great treasure-house of Dharma those teachings that benefit both ourselves and others. (p. 6)

This grandiosity is strangely intermittent. In fact, the Introduction is an argument among Goldstein, Goldstein, and joseph. Or, not actually an argument, because they simply talk past each other, without noticing that they have totally contradictory opinions.

joseph, worried, asks:

As old traditions meet in new ways, pressing questions arise. Is the melting-pot approach simply creating a big mess in which essential teachings of a tradition are lost? Or is something new emerging that will revitalize dharma practice for us all? Will it be possible to preserve the integrity of each of these distinct cultures of awakening, even as we nurture the enrichment that comes from their contact with each other? And do we sometimes water down—or leave behind—the essence of the teachings simply because they take us out of our Western physical or psychological comfort zone? How much can we pare away or alter before we start missing the point of it all? (p. 3)

These are, indeed, pressing questions—but One Dharma never addresses them. Instead, Goldstein describes the book as:

…an inquiry born from my own meditation practice and from a compelling interest in understanding—and realizing—the essence of freedom… The investigation of these questions requires great humility. When we step outside the safe bounds of the various individual traditions, each consistent within itself, we need to acknowledge the exploratory nature of a unified theory of Dharma… (pp. 3-4)

So what we have here is not exactly a manifesto, but the author dithering in public about whether he agrees with the manifesto he is mostly failing to write.

Whose Dharma?

In Western Buddhism, according to Goldstein, “we are willing to take what is useful and beneficial from different traditions.” (p. 2) But who decides what is beneficial and useful? What is irrelevant Asian cultural junk, and what is outright wrong? Goldstein frames the problem nicely:

Who or what constitutes ultimate spiritual authority? Is it a person at the top of a religious hierarchy or one’s own teacher? Is it the remembered words of the spiritual founder? Is it a democratic group process that decides what is true? Or is it left to each individual? These are not easy questions, and we find them alive and well in contemporary Buddhist communities. (p. 22)

Goldstein gives no explicit answer. He points out that:

The discipline of awakening is not a democratic process. In a monastery or retreat center we don’t vote on the hour of the wake-up bell or the meditation instructions given in interviews. We rely on the wisdom of the teacher. (p. 22)

On the other hand,

There is usually some mixture of wisdom and ignorance in those who are teaching. Someone may have profound insight in some areas and be immature in others… So there may be some value in relying on the group wisdom as well. (p. 22)

Together with his emphasis on an emerging consensus, this suggests that he believed authority should be given to the leading Western Buddhist teachers as a group. Collectively, they were co-creating Western Buddhism, and students can tag along. This is consonant also with his role in organizing (with Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das) the series of Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences.

Goldstein seems to have a different answer. “One Dharma” is his personal product. He uses the term as a brand name—you can almost see the trademark symbol—for the specific system he constructed:

When I am on retreat, I begin each day with a One Dharma ritual of prayer beginning with the Three Refuges in Pali and the Tibetan version of the Refuges… (p. 50)

One Dharma has its own doctrines, attitudes, practices, and liturgy, all defined by Goldstein.

This is a weak position. It invites questions like “why should we listen to you?” and “how do you know?” Maybe it is because Goldstein has no good answers that his voice is suppressed for most of the book.

Goldstein’s vague collectivism deflects such skepticism. “Everyone knows” that the Consensus view defines Western Buddhism, so no one needs to answer hard questions about whether it is right.

Which Dharma?

One Dharma, according to Goldstein, is a “unified theory of Dharma” (p. 4) based on the “deep common vein of liberating wisdom that runs through all the lineages of Buddhism” (p. 6). That is why One is in the title, and why the subtitle is “the emerging Western Buddhism.”

As [Buddhist] traditions moved across Asia into different cultures, they became more isolated from one another, and many of the differences hardened into their own traditional orthodoxies, often with sectarian overtones… Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of these great wisdom traditions.… This can be the great gift of our culture to the long historical sweep of the Buddha’s teachings. (p. 26)

I think this idea is factually wrong and politically oppressive.

Goldstein gives no reason to believe that the single, comprehensive Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of different Asian Buddhisms. That would make sense only if all the Asian Buddhisms had the same religious content, plus unnecessary added cultural nonsense that Westerners should drop. But in fact, the Asian Buddhisms have irreconcilably different core teachings. (This was the realization that sent joseph into shock. One Dharma is his antidote to that shock: pretending it isn’t so.)

In my view, there should not be one Western Buddhism. Inevitably, in fact, there will be many (or perhaps none). Some Western Buddhisms may be syntheses of multiple Asian traditions; others, not. (In fact, I’ll suggest that Goldstein’s own version is much less a synthesis than he believes.)

However, this “common core plus cultural accretions” model gave the Consensus the power to dominate American convert Buddhism for a couple of decades. It was the Consensus leaders who defined what the “essential core” of Buddhism was. That let them marginalize alternatives as obsolete traditions from quaint pre-modern cultures.

Goldstein is more honest about his starting point than Goldstein, and less ambitious. Not a unification of all Buddhisms, but:

I draw on aspects of three Buddhist traditions (Theravada, Tibetan, and Zen) while acknowledging that not only are there other schools of Buddhism, but even within these three, there is a great variety of lineages and sects. The criteria for reference and inclusion are simply the particular passions of my own spiritual journey: a long familiarity with Theravada teachings, the profound inspiration of a few remarkable Tibetan masters, and my great appreciation of Zen Buddhism’s direct pointing to the enlightened mind. (p. 4)

The versions of Theravada and Zen Goldstein draws on are the 20th century export products, which were devised in Asia specifically for Americans. These had already undergone a full century of Westernization before Goldstein’s generation encountered them. (I’ve written about this in several earlier posts, and will fill in some more details when I write the history of the hippie migration to India.)

So it is not surprising that these extensively-Westernized Buddhisms would be largely compatible. Anything that contradicted Western prejudices had already been removed for our convenience.

The issue of the Consensus’s relationship with Tibetan Buddhism is so complex that I’ll cover it in several later posts. Approximately, though, the “Tibetan” Buddhism Goldstein drew on was also an export product.

What Dharma?

Leaving aside its bizarre Introduction and first chapter, the rest of One Dharma is a pleasant introduction to Consensus Buddhism, written in the Goldstein voice. He says almost nothing explicitly about what One Dharma is. Instead, we get the life-story of Shakyamuni, a brief history of Buddhism, the Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind, the lay precepts, the paramitas, metta and compassion, the four foundations of mindfulness, Abhidharma, and so on. And so, most of the book is closely similar to other basic introductions to Buddhism, some of them written decades earlier.

So what, exactly, did Goldstein take from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism? And what did he choose to leave behind? How did he resolve their contradictions? Based on the Introduction, these would seem to be the key points he would want to explain; but he never does. Lacking a clear statement, we need to look at the details of what One Dharma teaches, and does not teach.

Not surprisingly, since Goldstein mainly studied modernized Theravada, that is the main source for One Dharma.

What he mostly omits from that tradition is renunciation. In an interview, he was asked what his current “edge” was; “the current challenge or evolutionary task you see in your own life.” He replied:

One edge is trying to explore what renunciation means as a layperson. Renunciation is one of the paramis of a buddha, and as a monastic, the whole form is set up for renunciation. As a layperson, it’s quite the opposite. And so just to see, OK, what could this mean, and how can I practice it?

It’s not just Goldstein; all Consensus Buddhism omits renunciation as a practice. Goldstein is unusual in even feeling he ought to attempt it. However, the Consensus is rooted in renunciate traditions, and it retains some of the renunciate conceptual framework. I’ll come back to this important inconsistency in later posts.

From Zen, Goldstein takes only the bodhisattva ideal and the paramitas. Apparently, these somehow contradict Theravada, and Goldstein had a breakthrough (p. 121-2) in which he understood how to reconcile this conflict. Unfortunately, I can’t follow his explanation. It sounds as though he simply understood and accepted an elementary Mahayana teaching. Perhaps I’m missing an important insight here because I know so little about Theravada.

One Dharma also incorporates only one teaching that Goldstein says he takes from Tibetan Buddhism. That is the statement that the nature of mind is “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive” (p. 176ff). He calls this a Dzogchen view, as he encountered it in a supposedly-Dzogchen context. It can indeed be found in Dzogchen texts, but it’s not distinctively Dzogchen, or Tibetan. It’s standard Mahayana psychology.

It’s unclear what work, if any, this teaching does in the One Dharma system. In Vajrayana, there are specific meditation methods that work with these three qualities of mind; but those practices aren’t mentioned in One Dharma, which is 100% Vajrayana-free. So is this just attractive-sounding verbiage?

Goldstein covers the nature-of-mind teaching in a chapter on the meaning of Nirvana. As he points out, enlightenment is described quite differently in different Buddhisms, in ways that seem entirely contradictory. What are we to make of this? Goldstein recommends accepting all the different theories. That’s nice

But I find this discussion so abstract and vague as to be useless. The chapter describes joseph’s personal perplexity at contradictory theories, without coming to any conclusion. It’s not clear that any of these highfalutin’ concepts relates to anything real—in which case, who cares? Not Consensus Buddhism, which mostly abandoned enlightenment as a goal.

So: what is One Dharma? In sum: it’s 1960s export Theravada, minus renunciation, plus the paramitas.

(One Dharma is unusual, as a Consensus text, in mentioning only briefly political correctness and psychotherapy, which are other major additions in most Consensus strands. Goldstein is a bit conservative about this.)

Seeking a strong text

To argue against a system of ideas, it is best to analyze the strongest statement of the system. Ideally, you start from a founding manifesto, whose clear and inspiring explanations sparked a movement. Your analysis points to exactly where you think the author went wrong. Then readers can make an informed decision based on the best cases for and against.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a strong text for Consensus Buddhism. One Dharma is the best available. (The Open Letter from the 1993 Western Buddhist Teacher Conference is another candidate; I’ll analyze it in an upcoming post.)

Considered as a manifesto, there is consistently less to One Dharma than meets the eye. Repeatedly, Goldstein makes a big claim, but then there is no follow-through as Goldstein takes over. And joseph is always around plaintively pointing out that Goldstein is an emperor with no clothes.

This consistent refusal to clearly state and defend its ideas makes it difficult to argue with the Consensus. It’s so vague and weak-kneed. Consensus writing is like a hell-realm ocean of tapioca pudding. Countless damned souls, floating listlessly, suck up the soft, sweet, nearly-tasteless glop. Unable to see any shore, they ignore pleas to swim out. Life-rafts launched by would-be rescuers slowly sink into the unresisting sea.

Why? I do not altogether understand this. Presumably, avoidance of clear thought is a strategy to avoid confronting Consensus Buddhism’s internal contradictions, and the cognitive dissonance produced by its obvious conflicts with reality. Quite how that works, I haven’t figured out.

It’s worth noting, though, that many scholars have pointed out this same deliberate mushiness in the wider trend of which Consensus Buddhism is a part. That is, the “green meme” or “bourgeois bohemian (bobo)” or “consciousness” movement. All these terms name a closed world-view that sees itself as universal, but actually just refuses to recognize or seriously discuss alternatives.

Is there such a thing as Consensus Buddhism?

A common reaction of Consensus Buddhists to my discussion of Consensus Buddhism is to insist that there is no such thing. They say I am just describing the Buddhism of the ignorant—the introductory teachings “shared by all sects”—and I am overlooking the huge diversity of Western Buddhism. In that case, One Dharma is not the manifesto of a movement, but just one man’s description of his personal approach to spirituality. (Which is the way Goldstein presents it in some passages.)

Here I agree with Goldstein. There is such a thing as One Dharma, and he and his friends lead it. It has about a million faithful in the fold, and thousands of teachers. Some have a background in Theravada, some in Zen, some in Tibetan Buddhism, but they are all teaching much the same stuff.

Consensus Buddhism has its house presses (Tricycle, the Shambhala Sun, the major non-academic Buddhist book publishers); a powerful political establishment, extensive training programs, centers, and all the other apparatus of a major religion.

The historical inevitability of the Consensus

Goldstein calls One Dharma “inevitable,” and I quarreled with him about that above. But in a different sense, I think he was right. Consensus Buddhism is a spiritual expression of the broad and deep changes in culture, society, and consciousness that sprang from the 1960s youth movement. (The New Age is a parallel expression, and it is not surprising that there was substantial cross-over and similarity between them.) The Consensus took its skeleton from modernized export Buddhism, but much of the meat comes from the ideas and practices of late-20th century America.

One Dharma’s subtitle describes it as “the emerging Western Buddhism,” and Goldstein repeats the word “emerging” often. He implies that he is observing an organic, self-arising trend that even he cannot yet see clearly, but that will inevitably develop into a coherent, homogeneous Western Buddhism. (Goldstein, on the other hand, takes full credit for creation.)

One Dharma was published in 2002. Goldstein’s tentativeness is odd and ironic, since 2002 was the high point of the Consensus’s political domination. (The publication of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen in 2003 marks the beginning of the end.)

As one review of One Dharma pointed out, “Rather than needing to argue polemically for his position, Goldstein simply announces with an almost-Marxist flourish that ‘Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of these great wisdom traditions. It is already happening.’ ” Hegemony was a fait accompli, which relieved Goldstein of the burden of supporting Goldstein’s claims.

Still, my impression is that Goldstein was not alone, among Consensus leaders in 2002, in being unaware of how completely they had succeeded. I suspect that is because they genuinely did not see themselves as creators. (This accounts for the peculiar alternation of Goldstein’s triumphalism and Goldstein’s modesty.) Insofar as the Consensus approach was historically inevitable, they indeed were not responsible.

The Consensus was driven by the teachers and the students of the Consensus leaders, as much as by the leaders themselves. Goldstein and the other leaders were, in part, simply surfing a wave, along for a ride on an incoming tide.

The Consensus was driven by the demands of bourgeois-bohemian baby boomers for a new spiritual system: one consistent with their broader ideology, that met their perceived emotional needs. That created an enormous pull in a particular direction. At times, you could feel the Consensus leaders’ frustration, as they tried to tug back, when bobo narcissism directly contradicted Buddhism. However, caught up in the bobo ideology themselves, the Consensus leaders mainly went with the flow.

The Consensus leaders were pushed, as well as pulled. Their religion was based on synthetic export Buddhisms created by Asian nationalists. Those teachers programmed the Consensus leaders with counter-missionary political agendas that are only now, decades later, becoming apparent. Those teachers were subtle and brilliant and held their cards close to their vests; and Goldstein and the others were manipulated and duped.

In 2002, the Consensus leaders were still looking deferentially over their shoulders at their Asian teachers, not noticing that in America they were already the establishment. Those teachers are now dead, and the Consensus leaders now understand that they are the elders. That implies responsibility to work out how to pass leadership to later generations.


My thanks to Naljorpa Ögyen Dorje for drawing my attention to One Dharma and sending me his own analysis of it. I’ve made substantial use of his ideas here.