Comments on “Power”

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Greg 2012-09-27

There is one dimension to that you touch on but I think needs a little further elaboration: Lamas in the west were actually far more powerful than they ever were in Tibet, at least within the bubble of their own little organizations. In Tibet, even lamas with a lot of political power were subject to all sorts of constraints, checks and balances. Although many people might have regarded them as gods, there were always other Tibetans willing to torture and kill them if they crossed the wrong boundaries. Even at more mundane levels, Chogyam Trungpa, for example, spends a lot of time in Born in Tibet complaining about how he never got to do what he wanted to do because first the tutor and then the bursar made all the decisions regarding his personal schedule.

On the contrary, in the west they all form their own “dharma organizations” so that they don’t have to work with anyone else, even other lamas from the exact same lineage. As the heads of their own little worlds, their spiritual authority becomes the basis for unchecked authority in all realms. When everyone in your world is samaya-bound to you, including the board of directors which is legally supposed to be checking your authority, there is no one to tell you perhaps you shouldn’t solicit sex from that 18-year old sangha member’s daughter, or pay yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salary and benefits, or declare your secret wife a goddess. No one else in your little bumble has any authority whatsoever, spiritual, temporal or otherwise. Whatever else lamas in Tibet got away with, they didn’t each operate in their own little hermetically sealed kingdoms.

And then there is the Tibetan omerta by which even the most egregious behavior will almost never provoke public comment by other lamas. A code of omerta conveniently adopted by the commercial dharma magazines. In Tibet there would be public silence coupled with backstage machinations. In the West public rebuke is the only recourse possible, since there is no shared backstage, but it isn’t used.

Fortunately, with the rise of the internet there is finally one check on this power - the likelihood of public exposure and shaming.

palapiku 2012-09-27

The more I read your stuff about tantra, the more I get convinced that this is not Buddhism at all, but rather LaVey Satanism.

Marie Ramos 2012-09-27

re: “The Tibetans would cooperate with the Consensus to suppress non-traditional tantra.”
Maybe you could give a few examples of what ‘non-traditional tantra’ looks like (if this does not pre-empt your upcoming posts too much). Chogyam Trungpa (from what I’ve heard), made his students do ‘traditional ngondro’, and ‘traditional’ vajrayogini practice. But perhaps, non-traditionally, he also made them do a lot of shamatha practice before they could start the ‘ngondro’.

Matthew O'Connell 2012-09-27

I found this post more subversive than the others and appreciate it more so as a result. A few random thoughts. I apologise for any incoherence:

As any powerful individual knows, without power, you have no impact. Without impact, any voice you may have is lost. The rich and wealthy have been abusing this insight since for ever. As you say, most Buddhists (any spiritual type really) consider power to be evil, a distortion of the sacred. New-Agers consider worthy power to be a spiritual capacity only. How wrong they are and how clear it is that their wishy washy solipsism means they have no relevance on the global scene in spite of their fantasies about the new millennium ushering in a new golden age and 2012 being the moment of transcendence. How many Buddhists in their disdain for power are a sort of New-Ager, I wonder?
The collective inertia in the face of powerful leadership amongst consensus Buddhism seems to reflect a naive idealism in which people will naturally collaborate and harmonise if only they practice and smile enough and develop enough of that super-compassion which solves all evils.
I worked in a genuine co-operative for a year and had the title of company director, whilst driving trucks, and found the attempt at collective decision making to be absurd. The same small clique of long-term employees dominated the decision making process time after time and softer voices were ignored. People recognise power and cannot but help but respond to it, even if their response is opposition. If Tantra can offer a clearer understanding of the raw nature of power and its consequences, then it certainly has something invaluable to offer to all Buddhists and to the relevance of Buddhism long-term. Certainly the issue of power needs to be out in the open and be considered within a more sophisticated and less allergic framework.
In spite of the nervousness towards power that you describe, people love powerful leaders. The lazy decision by hippies to abandon power structures in the 70s was a failure in re-evaluating the dynamics of the relationship that ought to exist between who leads and who follows. Instead of a sufficient and sustained collective call for a levelling of power and change in the rules for leaders, the lack of cohesion between multiple voices led to a fizzling out and the emergence of the capitalism of the 80s and the runaway leaders for sale that we see in the US & UK today. Hippies and spiritual types ever since have supported the powerful elites long-term by opting out of politics and pretending that eventually the non-spiritual types will go away or be transformed by the global awakening around the corner.
I would re-frame the crisis of democracy that we are facing in the west as actually a failure of leadership. Leadership is not a position of advantage, but one of service. The key to leadership and the harnessing of power, is to do so in service of the people and the situations that arise with a very clear intent and direction. Profound commitment to excellence in service to the many when combined with capacity and will results in powerful leadership. This is no different for Buddhists and Buddhism.

@ David - Whilst I agree that ‘many Western Buddhists oppose authority by reflex’ I would insert the words ‘traditional models’ of authority. Yes, as you say ‘Reforming Asian systems of religious authority is one way Buddhism has Westernized.’ I actually feel that Western culture as a whole is engaged in on an ongoing programme of subverting traditional models of authority - and has been since the protestant reformation. I perceive the process as being much slower than some elements of your blog describe, having been going on since Luther (at least). Buddhism is merely the latest target.

The reason I would insert the words ‘traditional models’ is that what actually results from the Consensus activity is a new model of authority. Consensus Buddhism has leaders - who wield power. They just wield a different kind of power than the traditional model. As long as they conform to the prerequisites of this new power model (for example, emphasizing equality, equal opportunity, personal process over ‘archaic’ models of unending promise and binding commitment, vegetarianism, environmentalism. . .) then they get to wield power. Traditional models are criticized for the fact that people follow their leaders blindly. Now the pretense is that we follow our leaders with open eyes - but this is just a different system that gives the same results. And follow we do. Nowadays we re-elect leaders, rather than shoot them. Sure, it’s more civilized, but a wise man once said ‘in a democratic system it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government gets in’.

I would argue that the leadership and power model of Consensus Buddhism is just as flawed as, for example, the theocratic model that has dominated Tibetan Buddhism. It’s just a different set of flaws, with different downsides. The tone of your posting here does suggest - I think inadvertently - that Consensus Buddhists have ‘got what they wanted’ - a system that cannot be corrupted, because it has done away with a flawed leadership model. I actually wonder, perhaps cynically, if it is more a case that Consensus Buddhist leaders have got what they wanted - a new system in which they can perform leadership roles, when perhaps they would not have been able to do so in the old, traditional system

David Chapman 2012-09-28

@ Greg — Thanks! And ‘yes’ to all that.

The points you touch on are all ones I hope to write much more about later. I started writing a reply here, and realized that it would be longer than the average blog post, so it’ll have to wait!

@ palapiku — Yes, there are significant similarities between Buddhist tantra and Satanism. They both systematically invert some of the values of their parent religious system, while leaving the basic framework intact. (I plan to write about this explicitly, soon.)

There’s at least one critical difference between Buddhist tantra and the LaVey version of Satanism. Tantra, like other Buddhisms, insists that whatever you do, it should be for the benefit of others. It’s anti-selfish, whereas selfishness was LaVey’s central principle.

There’s no agreed-on definition for what counts as “Buddhism,” so it’s meaningless to say “this isn’t really Buddhism.” Perhaps what you actually mean is “this is very different from the Buddhisms I already know about,” and/or “I don’t like it”?

@ Marie Ramos — For the 1980s, my list of “non-traditional tantra” teachers is Chögyam Trungpa, Tarthang Tulku, Namkhai Norbu, and Ngakpa Chögyam. None of these could really be called “modern” (nor would they want to have be), but each innovated significantly in various ways.

Trungpa’s Shambhala Training system was the closest thing we’ve had to “modern tantra” so far, I think. (It’s been revised out of recognition in the past dozen years, unfortunately.) Officially, it was a non-Buddhist secular path of meditation. In fact, its later stages contained a ton of innovations in completion-phase tantra.

His early teaching of Buddhist tantra—in Crazy Wisdom for instance—was radical. He didn’t pull any punches; it’s the straight dope. His later Buddhist teaching became more conventional. I think that the change probably came with the visit of the Karmapa. He had been seriously considering saying “fuck you” to the Karmapa, but decided he liked and respected him, and would work more closely within the traditional Karma Kagyu framework. But then his innovations had to spill over somewhere else, and they went into Shambhala Training.

@ Matthew — Well said! I agree with all of that.

@ Namgyal Dorje — Yes, I agree with all you say, also.

In earlier drafts of this page, I was more critical of the Consensus leaders. I toned that down and left the criticism largely implicit. Maybe I went too far.

I’m still wrestling with the question of what is the best balance between pointing out the failings of the Consensus and its leadership while avoiding unnecessary hurtfulness. (I wrote a whole page about that recently.) It seems likely that I will continue to err on both sides.

Leaders are always caught up in ideologies and social processes that they do not understand, even when they originated them. In most cases, they mostly think they are doing the right thing, as best they can. In most cases, there are negative effects of their activities, which they are blind to. In most cases, they become complacent and comfortable. They lose their original vision, and also come to rely on enjoying the perks of power. None of this makes them evil; but it does mean they must be opposed.

matthewmgioia 2012-09-28

Hi David. As an American who embraces the spirit of democracy, I am aligned with the “hippies” who saw “collective people power as the only legitimate kind.” However, democracy will only work when it is kept local and when people have the liberty to develop their own “power from within.” In terms of our democracy here in the United States, it has been undermined by institutions like forced schooling, which teaches us to be irresponsible, incompetent, and dependent on others for all our goods, services, and on experts for all kinds of advice. The authority of the expert is akin to Religious Authority, blended in some with power from within. Perhaps the religious / spiritual club is just a part of this phenomenon: people who have been schooled to rely on others come seeking a religious authority who has some kind of credential, be it Religious Authority or power-from-within. Either way, while it may be enlightening to listen to so-called experts, it is often dis-em-powering because the listener is willing to cede his own personal authority to the expert. I agree with Namgyal Dorje that the new “Consensus” leadership has recreated the hierarchy in their own image. While power is, as you platitudinously say, unavoidable, systems that set up experts will always disempower the individual and therefore misuse power (or in your words be “ignoble.” I appreciate your work to expose Consensus Buddhism, because it is this kind of critical study and speech that encourages people to think for themselves, follow advice they deem appropriate after a critical examination, and generally be their own authority.

On another note, I understand your hesitancy to attack vehemently, not wanting to defeat your own purposes by inflaming those you criticize (and because you like them). However, it strikes me that the “noble” way to enter discourse here is to be painfully honest and clear (lest you wind up enforcing dubious opinions) while making it equally clear that you do not intend your remarks to be an indictment of someone’s character altogether ie that you have “no hard feelings.” Either way, please don’t trust that your implicit criticisms will be understood, particularly if someone is just skimming through a blog post. If you are open to honest criticism, you are qualified to give it.

@ David - thank you for your reply. Regarding ‘I’m still wrestling with the question of what is the best balance between pointing out the failings of the Consensus and its leadership while avoiding unnecessary hurtfulness’ you’re doing a great job at this from my perspective. I suspect that it is impossible to get the balance right. What you’re doing though is still trying to achieve balance in spite of that, being entirely open about the process, and being entirely willing to clarify points where there is contention. That’s all you can do in such a situation.

As a result of this open approach both to the Consensus and the subject matter in general, I think you wield a certain kind of power here yourself - perhaps a fourth class of power - the power of clear, open intent. When someone’s intentions are clearly and openly expressed, the respect and trust this approach can win is enormous. I notice this particularly in certain politicians, scientific and religious figures whose views I disagree with. Where their case is stated in an open manner, free from defensiveness, I find that I trust them more than I trust people I agree with. I distrust those I agree with because of my own failings - because I am suspicious that I’m inclined to like them just because I agree with them.

Zhalmed Pawo 2012-09-30

@David: Thank you for another great post. (I pray that you will soon win a national lottery, so that you could quit your day job, and become a full time Buddhist Blogger.) As always, while I generally agreed with your post as a whole, you managed to include a detaiI I disagree with - this time the detail was your ultra-modernist view about the (non)existence of supernatural power. :D But nevermind.

I was wondering though, whether you are familiar with two Thai concepts, “saksit” and “khuna”, which could both be translated as “power” ? (They both extend from human-to-human relationships into supernatural-to-human relationships, so whether one accepts the existence of supernatural power does not really matter.) Googling does not help, and there are very few books that mention or explain these interesting ideas of power. (Niels Mulder: Inside Thai Society, has a good explanation.) The idea is, that all meaningful power relationships, or relationships with a meaningful power difference, are of either kind, or a combined ones in a few rare cases, and one does indeed relate in a very different manner to someone or something depending on which power is present. One acts differently in the presence of a holder of saksit and a holder of khuna. Mistaking one for the other could even prove fatal, in a literal sense.

If you are familiar with these two different concepts of power, I’ll guess you will use them in your future posts, so I do not wish to spoil the fun by explaining too much about them here. If on the other hand you have no idea of these ideas, you might want to know more. I have found them a great help in thinking about power and all power related stuff. I even finally managed to understand what the Lord of the Rings is all about by thinking in terms of saksit and khuna! It is not a story about good vs evil, freedom vs tyranny, light vs darkness, order vs chaos, but a story of a clash between two different types of pure power, khuna and saksit, where the main holders of these powers are Aragorn and Sauron respectively, the main storyline being how khuna-in-potentia eventually becomes fully manifest in Aragorn as he accepts his true nature.

In the same vein, it perhaps happened, that the Consensus, while rightfully fearing pure and unchained saksit, wanted to chain it, but as it failed to tell saksit and khuna apart, managed merely to banish holders of the khuna from the realm, and while preferring to have a Steward of Gondor as their authority, instead of the rightful King, found eventually that the Steward, alas, was enthralled and slaved by all the saksit left.

(And if that made sense to anyone, I’ll eat my hat.)

David Chapman 2012-10-02


Thank you very much for your praise and prayer!

I did not know about khuna and saksit. Thanks for letting me know about them!

I read a little on the web, which suggested that they correspond to moral/ordered/comfortable power and amoral/chaotic/alien power. Is that right?

lama tsewang 2013-01-25

you should also look at the vinaya pitaka,it has the Buddhas ideas on how a monastic order should run itself. It says in it that the decision should be by consensus, if one monk is oppose on community matter, it cannot be done. And it doesnt matter at all about theior seniority. Once they are a full member of the community , their opinion is of equal weight to the oldest monks. This kind of structure , is of course good for fostering harmony within a community. It is very different from what is practiced now.

@ Lama Tsewang - would I be right in assuming that the decision making model you describe relates solely to secular (e.g. administrative) matters, and that there is a different model for the interpretation of doctrine?

lamatsewang 2013-01-26

i dont think so , there is not a clear line between those two things.First of all , a Sangha doent legislate what people believe. thats an idea we get here , from christian traditions. if someone does really crazy stuff ,and is asked to stop, and does not, then its a matter to brig up in front of a community.

david 2014-04-14

how much bolloney can you write about something to make benefit? None. Good luck trying to fit tantra into your established lives or views of reality.

Terrific stuff

Brian Mackenzie 2023-06-17

I’m new to your blog. I was introduced to Tibetan tantra at 17 by a small group in my home town in Ontario who had their own lama/guru. I’m now 52. I’ve studied directly with Namkhai Norbu, Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tai Situ Pa and others. I have not had a regular Tibetan “practice” as such, ever, although I did immerse myself in Burmese vipassana. Anyway, I’ve been aware of the political nature of Tibetan Buddhism for some time but I was not aware of Consensus Buddhism as a formal movement. I am very grateful for this article and look forward to learning more from your writings.


David Chapman 2023-06-18

Thank you for your introduction!

To clarify, “Consensus Buddhism” is just my term; the people I’d categorize that way don’t use the phrase, and might find it offensive (I don’t know). It’s organized, but not formalized. It’s a way of doing Buddhism that has its own intrinsic logic that is functional for many modern people, but not the same as any traditional Buddhism. It’s also a network of prominent teachers with similar views. Their influence appears to have waned considerably over the past decade (as I explained in several follow-on posts).

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