Comments on “Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism”

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Michael Dorfman 2013-11-22

Excellent post. And, although I’m an academic, I don’t have any problem with your summary of the path. The only minor quibble I’d add is that the level of renunciation required is proportional to how quickly one wishes to achieve enlightenment– in other words, lay-people who wish to live a life of only moderate renunciation can do so, in the aim of a favorable rebirth. I believe I have mentioned this before, but one of the things that puzzles me about Consensus Buddhism is the way it mixes and matches parts of the monastic path with parts of the lay path without any corresponding adjustment to the immediate goals.

Greg 2013-11-22

It may be problematic to lump the early tradition together with the Mahayana, because it would appear that in the vast corpus of Mahayana literature there is (at a minimum) a certain amount of equivocation and revision regarding what renunciation entails exactly, and perhaps a bit of a ambivalence about and contradictory assertions regarding the concept.

David Chapman 2013-11-22

@ Michael — Thanks, glad I made no major errors! Yes, the Consensus mixture of different yanas, without no clear concept of how they fit together or what the goal is, is puzzling. This post is mainly background for an analysis of that—coming up soon!

@ Greg — Yes, you are entirely right about this. I’ll discuss this issue of Mahayana starting to waffle on renunciation in my next post. (This one was already way too long!)

Duff 2013-11-22

“If your external environment is extremely bland, the raging fire of lust gradually subsides, and suffering decreases.”

In my personal experience (and any addict can tell you this too), the path of renunciation or abstention increases the amount of pleasure one gets from the stimulus. So while the craving may eventually subside as long as one is NEVER around any temptations, as soon as one is exposed to the stimulus, the longer it’s been the more desire is aroused.

On the other hand, regular indulgence REDUCES the amount of pleasure one experiences from the stimulus. If you drink every day, you get less buzzed on more alcohol than if you don’t drink for a couple months and then have a couple drinks.

Just thought I’d throw that wrench in there.

I do think you are absolutely right that sutrayana is about complete renunciation though. Think about it–there wasn’t even anything that pleasurable back then, compared to modern foods, drinks, drugs, sexual opportunities, video games, television, etc. etc.

David Chapman 2013-11-22
So while the craving may eventually subside as long as one is NEVER around any temptations, as soon as one is exposed to the stimulus, the longer it’s been the more desire is aroused.

Yes, and this is why you need vipassana. Its function is to disassemble and permanently destroy the mental machinery that keeps craving operative even when there is no sensory provocation. Eventually you become immune to the stimulus.

Although this is not the main method of my own practice, it does clearly work (to some extent, at least) and is valuable, for instance in working with addiction, as you say.

Niv 2013-11-22

After reading “Why I am not a Buddhist” I have to wonder… exactly HOW tantra is a part of buddhism?

@Nive - It might be more useful to ask how Buddhism is a part of Tantra, since Tantra is its own thing that is a part of other religions as well.

@David - It is like Consensus Buddhism is trying to hack its own tantric path in the jungle, come hell or high water. Except they refuse to call it tantra, because of the association it has in the Western mind with sex (though they would probably never admit to being sex negative), as well as they refuse to admit that what they are doing is essentially re-inventing the wheel (pun intended). This re-invention of the wheel could turn out to be not Buddhism, or could turn out to be something new that is. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

David Chapman 2013-11-22

@ Niv — The short answer is that if you continue in the direction from Hinayana to Mahayana, going further in a straight line, you get to Buddhist Tantra. Explaining that would be a pretty big project, which for now I’m trying to avoid!

@ JL — Yes, I think this is exactly right! Five posts in the future, I’ll agree in detail.

Foster Ryan 2013-11-22

What even many western tantrics can overlook is that the samayas are the engines that drive tantra- and violating them also drains the power from tantra. The vows are a whole lot different, and don’t involve renunciation in the same way as sutra does (especially when you get to the dzogchen vows) but they are also equally important. The more clear I get about the samayas the more powerful my practice is. The samayas create a container that holds the power. In Longchenpa’s commentary on the Guhyagarbha tantra he discusses how the samayas are the deity- it is them that holds one to the path, and the view, and therefore they are the path and the deity itself that does the transforming. Many western tantrics can be very lax on attention to them- usually also out of a lack of awareness of their importance, which also comes from a lack of education. This is certainly an issue in new age tantra- which really shouldn’t use the word tantra, actually -and I really wish it wouldn’t- as it creates a serious PR problem for the actual tantrics.

kerm 2013-11-22

Why not enjoy death and decay? Why not enjoy a fine wine and a gorgeous woman? Equally. Sorry if this sounds naive and juvenile, but I think discovering the wonder and divine beauty in everything seems appealing. It has to be actively cultivated and possibly entails developing a meta-persona (seer) but it sounds better than some sort of blissful stasis.

Anyways, great post! I wish I would have read something like when I was a “Barnes-&-Nobles Buddhist”. I had so many misconceptions about Buddhism, it astounds me.

David Chapman 2013-11-22

@ Foster — Yes, I agree with all of that.

@ kerm — Yes; I expressed a similar sentiment here.

brahmacharya.net 2013-11-22

I wrote an article similar to this on my blog entitled “Buddha against sex and sensual pleasure”. Very few Buddhists in the western world know what real Buddhism is. Most embrace the teachings of peace, non-violence and compassion to satisfy their desires. There can’t be peace as long as there is desire. Desires lead to frustration, anger, and ultimately violence. What the Buddha, and other enlightened beings really recommended was dispassion - the rest will follow naturally.

jayarava 2013-11-24

“If you are familiar with scripture, you have a valid reason to doubt that renunciation is the essence of Sutrayana.”

> Put simply no it’s not the essence of sutratayana. It’s the essence of preparation for deep meditation. The Sutras’ consistent characterisation of the problem they seek to alleviate is that it is caused by intoxication (pramāda) with the pleasures of the senses (kāma). Other short-hands exist, but they point back to this.

Pleasure itself is never the problem. Intoxication is. That is why the most common one word summary of the path, included in the last words of the Buddha, is apramāda, which in this context is sobering up from intoxication with the pleasures of the senses. Gross physical renunciation is certainly part of the training, because it gives us access to the dhyānas which are a far more refined form of pleasure. Consider the story of the Buddha’s cousin Nanada who is taken to heaven (an allegory for dhyāna) so that by comparison worldly beauty and pleasure lose their hold over him.

At least least two forms of pleasure are blameless: sukha and prīti. They are an integral part of the process of cultivating dhyāna. They naturally fall away as samādhi deepens, but they are not in the same category as kāma.

Revulsion is simply a bad translation of nibbidā which refers to the sense of disappointment and weariness that one experiences when one sees through kāma. It can be cultivated through observing that what we think of as beautiful is in fact ugly, but it must go deeper than simple disgust.

In fact renunciation practised in the right spirit is liberating. Especially if it is accompanied by Samādhi - which I’m guessing you left out of your exploration since you don’t seem to mention it. I’m not quite sure why you are blind to samādhi in this account, but having left it out you have certainly skewed the presentation rather dramatically. It’s why we go on about dhyāna.

I think you inadvertently mix up ancient and modern Theravāda with Pali texts. These are three distinct phases of one thread in the skein. Certainly they ought not be treated as synonymous as you do above. Sometimes many centuries separate the commentators you mention. It’s as though you were lumping together the author of Beowulf, Shakespeare and Earnest Hemingway. It doesn’t make sense in our culture, why would it make sense in India/Thailand?

I’ve said it privately, but I need to say it publicly as well. My sense of your treatment of other forms of Buddhism, particularly Theravāda and/or Early Buddhism is that you have a massive bias against. And that bias constantly shows in how you approach the material, how you treat it, and the conclusions you come to. You sit down with the Pali texts with the intention of finding fault and making fun. Ultimately it’s superficial and trite. You yourself seem blind to your bias and present yourself as someone who is neutral (this is pseudo-objectivity of scientific rationalism). Your arguments against what you call consensus Buddhism have a crusading quality to them that I associate with Romanticism. And your rejection of the mainstream and affirmation of your views on Tantra strike me as Protestant in character. And in this lies the irony of your project to criticise other Buddhists in terms drawn from McMahan. I know you deny the charge, but to me you write like a modernist, not like a post-modernist.

Tantra is a development from a time about 1000 years removed from the milieu of early Buddhism. Everything about India had changed down to the racial make up of the people in the regions where tantrikas, to the languages they spoke, to the questions they asked about life, and the social and political institutions they relied on. The problems tantra was and is trying to solve were conceptualised very differently and the solutions were a grand synthesis of all the religious methods of the day as a way to reinvigorate religion and occurred across the board - Tantra is as much Hindu as Buddhist. Thus it’s doctrines and methods are largely unrelated to those of earlier Buddhists - or even later Buddhists of, say, 13th century Japan that are also influential in the West.Tibetans transformed tantra and made it their own - a cursory comparison with Shingon is ample to demonstrate this. Well into the 20th century prominent members of Shingon schools were publishing the opinion that Tibetans did not practice Buddhism at all.

Your explanations and comparisons have no resonance for me as they clearly lack any feel for the non-tantric forms of Buddhism. You appear to write in a partisan way, but do so under the guise of objectivity. I just don’t enjoy reading this kind of stuff and had you not emailed me about it I wouldn’t have read this - the first line is inaccurate enough to put me off.

But that’s not the worst thing. You talk about “ways forward” but things are moving ahead while we analyse from the sidelines. They just aren’t moving in a direction you like. It’s not as if you are in dialogue with the leaders of Buddhism. Like Glenn Wallis and other critical voices this is a very small discussion amongst outsiders about what the mainstream are getting wrong - which the mainstream largely ignore as they get on with implementing their ideas on a worldwide scale. Mindfulness® is absolutely huge - part of state provided health care in the UK now. There is a mindfulness group for MPs and senior civil servants in our government. As a phenomenon it dwarfs bloggers like us - it dwarfs the entire world of Buddhist scholarship in numbers and resources. And the research they link it to is not philosophical but scientific. None of them are citing my published papers (almost no one cites anything I’ve published). Because Mindfulness® makes a difference to people’s lives - directly and tangibly. And we don’t. Facts don’t change people’s lives.

The reality is that none of this matters except to loner geeks like us. The Daniel Ingrams and Kabat Zinns and Pema Chodrons of the world will always be far more influential than us because they work with people rather than ideas, and they make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to influence or even change the face of Buddhism you’re going about it the wrong way.

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-24

Sadhu! Very good, Mr. David Chapman.

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve." — SN 45.8

It’s like if you ride a horse and want it straight ahead and not in circles. One rein is aversion, you pull with “resolve on ill-will”. The other rein is greed, you pull with “resolve on on renunciation”. And the head of the horse is delusion, twist around if you have no skills in pulling and this you solve with “harmlessness”, turning down you stick to views.

So if one simply pulls on one rein, there is nothing but a turning in wheels.
But how ever, there will be less willing to go straight ahead and greed is common and common accepted as positive, jet just one side of the coin.
And to make it understood:

The Lonely Path Whatever there is in the mind: If our reasons aren't yet good enough, we can't let it go. In other words, there are two sides: this side here and that side there. People tend to walk along this side or along that side. There's hardly anybody who walks along the middle. It's a lonely path. When there's love, we walk along the path of love. When there's hatred, we walk along the path of hatred. If we try to walk by letting go of love and hatred, it's a lonely path. We aren't willing to follow it.

… especially because there a so many cheater and drug dealers (metta for those who live ensnared to the 5 strings of sensuality). So for those with less wisdom, not easy to see but nothing then a short popular food for the social service industry generally called “Buddhism”.

From wrong view comes wrong resolve .... and if people are good, they develop some amount of Gecko-samadhi for worldly purposes.

metta & mudita

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-24

A very good collection of how to work against defilement is “The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest ” from Ven. Nyanaponika Thera. Here the part to get sensual desire come down:

1. Sensual Desire A. Nourishment of Sensual Desire There are beautiful objects; frequently giving unwise attention to them — this is the nourishment for the arising of sensual desire that has not arisen, and the nourishment for the increase and strengthening of sensual desire that has already arisen. — SN 46:51 B. Denourishing of Sensual Desire There are impure objects (used for meditation); frequently giving wise attention to them — this is the denourishing of the arising of sensual desire that has not yet arisen, and the denourishing of the increase and strengthening of sensual desire that has already arisen. — SN 46:51 Six things are conducive to the abandonment of sensual desire: Learning how to meditate on impure objects; Devoting oneself to the meditation on the impure; Guarding the sense doors; Moderation in eating; Noble friendship; Suitable conversation. — Commentary to the Satipatthana Sutta 1. Learning how to meditate about impure objects & 2. Devoting oneself to the meditation on the impure (a) Impure objects In him who is devoted to the meditation about impure objects, repulsion towards beautiful objects is firmly established. This is the result. — AN 5:36 "Impure object" refers, in particular, to the cemetery meditations as given in the Satipatthana Sutta and explained in the Visuddhimagga; but it refers also to the repulsive aspects of sense objects in general. (b) The loathsomeness of the body Herein, monks, a monk reflects on just this body, confined within the skin and full of manifold impurities from the soles upward and from the top of the hair down: "There is in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, lymph, saliva, mucus, fluid of the joints, urine (and the brain in the skull)." — MN 10 By bones and sinews knit, With flesh and tissue smeared, And hidden by the skin, the body Does not appear as it really is... The fool thinks it beautiful, His ignorance misguiding him... — Sutta Nipata, v.194,199 (c) Various contemplations Sense objects give little enjoyment, but much pain and much despair; the danger in them prevails. — MN 14 The unpleasant overwhelms a thoughtless man in the guise of the pleasant, the disagreeable overwhelms him in the guise of the agreeable, the painful in the guise of pleasure. — Udana, 2:8 3. Guarding the sense doors How does one guard the sense doors? Herein, a monk, having seen a form, does not seize upon its (delusive) appearance as a whole, nor on its details. If his sense of sight were uncontrolled, covetousness, grief and other evil, unwholesome states would flow into him. Therefore he practices for the sake of its control, he watches over the sense of sight, he enters upon its control. Having heard a sound... smelt an odor... tasted a taste... felt a touch... cognized a mental object, he does not seize upon its (delusive) appearance as a whole... he enters upon its control. — SN 35:120 There are forms perceptible by the eye, which are desirable, lovely, pleasing, agreeable, associated with desire, arousing lust. If the monk does not delight in them, is not attached to them, does not welcome them, then in him thus not delighting in them, not being attached to them and not welcoming them, delight (in these forms) ceases; if delight is absent, there is no bondage. There are sounds perceptible by the ear... odors perceptible by the mind... if delight is absent, there is no bondage. — SN 35:63 4. Moderation in eating How is he moderate in eating? Herein a monk takes his food after wise consideration: not for the purpose of enjoyment, of pride, of beautifying the body or adorning it (with muscles); but only for the sake of maintaining and sustaining this body, to avoid harm and to support the holy life, thinking: "Thus I shall destroy the old painful feeling and shall not let a new one rise. Long life will be mine, blamelessness and well-being." — MN 2; MN 39 5. Noble friendship Reference is here, in particular, to such friends who have experience and can be a model and help in overcoming sensual desire, especially in meditating on impurity. But it applies also to noble friendship in general. The same twofold explanation holds true also for the other hindrances, with due alterations. The entire holy life, Ananda, is noble friendship, noble companionship, noble association. Of a monk, Ananda, who has a noble friend, a noble companion, a noble associate, it is to be expected that he will cultivate and practice the Noble Eightfold Path. — SN 45:2 6. Suitable conversation Reference is here in particular to conversation about the overcoming of sensual desire, especially about meditating on impurity. But it applies also to every conversation which is suitable to advance one's progress on the path. With due alterations this explanation holds true also for the other hindrances. If the mind of a monk is bent on speaking, he (should remember this): "Talk which is low, coarse, worldly, not noble, not salutary, not leading to detachment, not to freedom from passion, not to cessation, not to tranquillity, not to higher knowledge, not to enlightenment, not to Nibbana, namely, talk about kings, robbers and ministers, talk about armies, dangers and war, about food and drink, clothes, couches, garlands, perfumes, relatives, cars, villages, towns, cities, and provinces, about women and wine, gossip of the street and of the well, talk about the ancestors, about various trifles, tales about the origin of the world and the ocean, talk about what happened and what did not happen — such and similar talk I shall not entertain." Thus he is clearly conscious about it. But talk about austere life, talk suitable for the unfolding of the mind, talk which is conducive to complete detachment, to freedom from passion, to cessation, tranquillity, higher knowledge, enlightenment and to Nibbana, namely, talk about a life of frugality, about contentedness, solitude, aloofness from society, about rousing one's energy, talk about virtue, concentration, wisdom, deliverance, about the vision and knowledge of deliverance — such talk I shall entertain." Thus he is clearly conscious about it. — MN 122 These things, too, are helpful in conquering sensual desire: One-pointedness of mind, of the factors of absorption (jhananga); Mindfulness, of the spiritual faculties (indriya); Mindfulness, of the factors of enlightenment (bojjhanga). C. Simile If there is water in a pot mixed with red, yellow, blue or orange color, a man with a normal faculty of sight, looking into it, could not properly recognize and see the image of his own face. In the same way, when one's mind is possessed by sensual desire, overpowered by sensual desire, one cannot properly see the escape from sensual desire which has arisen; then one does not properly understand and see one's own welfare, nor that of another, nor that of both; and also texts memorized a long time ago do not come into one's mind, not to speak of those not memorized. — SN 46:55

Effort, and this needs a good reason. You can wait this reality of dukkha knocks on your dorr, or you can put some faith into it and prepare your self. Its like the decision to abstain from candies and brush teeth which is of course not easy if you believe in the protection of health insurance and science to overcome reality.

David Chapman 2013-11-24

Hi Jayarava,

Thank you very much for the long, knowledgeable comment! You raise many interesting issues, and I’ll answer in a somewhat different order.

The substantive point of my post was that numerous Pali and Mahayana scriptures agree that renunciation of sense pleasure is absolutely necessary, and a major aspect of the path. Do you disagree with that?

I quoted from a wide variety of sources, across two millennia, to demonstrate that this is a universal point of Hinayana and Mahayana agreement (taking “Mahayana” in the narrow sense as not including Vajrayana).

It was not my intention here to criticize renunciation, or traditional Buddhism. Quite the opposite! In fact, my impression from comments here, and on the Reddit thread about my post, is that many traditionalists have found it a clear statement and strong defense of what they practice, against the corruptions of modernism. I agree completely that “renunciation practised in the right spirit is liberating,” as you say. Renunciation is not my path, but I totally respect anyone who follows it.

The reason this matters is that modern Western Buddhism rejects renunciation. If renunciation is critical to all previous non-tantric Buddhisms, we need to understand how and whether Western Buddhism works without it (and without tantra). This is genuinely puzzling to me.

One possibility is that Western Buddhists have discovered that it is possible to achieve apramāda through samādhi without practicing external renunciation. This would go strongly against scripture, and would be a remarkable breakthrough, but seems possible. Do you think that’s a good characterization of modern Western practice? (My guess is not: few modern Buddhists want to sober up from intoxication with the pleasures of the senses. But I’m unsure.)

So far I’ve covered the aspects of your comment that seem relevant to this particular post and to “strike at the critical point.” Of the remainder, I’ll reply in order to two categories: discussion of my broader project, and technical items that seem a bit tangential.

I’m not sure I understand your criticism of the general project, so I guess actually I won’t respond to most of that. I think your last paragraph is very well-taken, though:

The reality is that none of this matters except to loner geeks like us. The Daniel Ingrams and Kabat Zinns and Pema Chodrons of the world will always be far more influential than us because they work with people rather than ideas, and they make a difference in people’s lives. If you want to influence or even change the face of Buddhism you’re going about it the wrong way.

I worry about this all the time. I dropped this blog for a year as a result. I’ve come back to it only because I’ve found there’s strong demand for modernized Buddhist tantra, and no one else is publicly working out what that might mean. Because I’m a loner geek, I don’t want to teach, but I hope I can contribute in this way. I do think it’s possible I will influence popular teachers, if I ever actually get to the point (how modern tantra can work) instead of writing preliminary background material.

Mindfulness® (simplified secularized samatha-vipassana) is indeed huge; that doesn’t seem a bad thing. It has been the “killer app” for Consensus Buddhism. I think a simplified secularized version of tantra is also possible, and could be another “killer app.” That might have huge impact too.

On to specific, more technical points. These are probably not worth discussing further, but for the sake of completeness:

Tibetans transformed tantra and made it their own – a cursory comparison with Shingon is ample to demonstrate this. Well into the 20th century prominent members of Shingon schools were publishing the opinion that Tibetans did not practice Buddhism at all.

Shingon is based on an earlier version of Indian tantra than the Tibetan version is. Shingon includes only “outer tantra.” I’ve talked in depth with a Shingon teacher, and I find that the Shingon and Tibetan versions of that are startlingly similar.

Tibetan Buddhism also includes “inner tantra,” which also originated in India, after the line of transmission into China was broken. It’s true that there were further developments in Tibet, but I suspect that the Japanese critics attributed all differences to Tibetan heresy, though most actually occurred in India. For us, it should make no difference where innovations occurred, but Asian Buddhists often equate “Indian” with “authentic.”

“Bias constantly shows… you sit down with the Pali texts with the intention of finding fault and making fun.” As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve ever discussed Pali texts. I’m not sure what you are thinking of here. I was upfront, in the last section of this post, that I found some of the texts unpleasant, illogical, or both, but that is a statement of personal distaste rather than objective condemnation.

“At least least two forms of pleasure are blameless: sukha and prīti.” Yes, that’s why the scriptures talk about “sense pleasure”—these are categorized as non-sense pleasures.

“Revulsion is simply a bad translation of nibbidā”: it translates many different terms, perhaps badly; I mentioned nekkhama and pabbajja as examples, and noted that the point is not a word but the overall concept.

David Chapman 2013-11-24

Johann Hanzze, thank you very much! Glad you thought it good. The additional scriptural passages here should be helpful… I wanted to include more myself, but felt that the post would become too long.

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-24

David, start to consider is always good. Just don’t fear the silents which comes with it. Addicted to joy, we normally don’t like peace. That needs a lot of nuts. Not many would like to be really cool. No need to argue on this place.

Emma 2013-11-24

“I think Consensus “Buddhism” has more in common with liberal Christianity than Buddhism. Perhaps recognizing this could begin a new way forward?”

This was one of the most striking observations to me in this post and I would very interested to hear more about your observations on this one.

Admittedly, the topic is interesting to me because it’s been on my mind. Reading some liberal christian pastors lately, I have been struck at how interchangeable the theology feels with a lot of western buddhism…

Both spiritual systems strongly emphasize self-compassion and working to become a more decent person in one’s everyday life. Also, it seems like mindfulness basically = God’s presence in the way these terms are actually used and encouraged in each system. I’m questioning if there is anything that western buddhism offers that’s considerably different, except the bonus of not having to deal with the Bible, and the baggage that particularly book holds for people…

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-25

Emma, actually you are wrong and right. Buddhism has much equal with Christianity and the sozio-liberal movement in this or on that tradition has also much common. The question is always, does one understand the basics of good tradition, or does one just like use a label to justify his incapacity.
That what is seen as baggage by the ordinary people is in fact the heart to find an entrance.

Its really not about attaining, and if there is something to get, it is all about giving up and giving and this possibility, this invitation is the only gift. Do you like to take it?

David Chapman 2013-11-25

Emma — My observation is that Consensus Buddhism does not recommend renunciation in the genuine Buddhist sense, which means giving up all sense pleasures. Instead, it has an ethics of being satisfied with a reasonable amount, moderation, simplicity, modesty, and charity. It says that pleasures are OK if they are the right kinds of pleasures in the right amount at the right time for the right reason, but you need to constantly guard against having too much fun because that wouldn’t be nice.

This isn’t a Buddhist approach, but it is the approach of Protestant Christianity. I think the leadership of the Consensus unconsciously replaced Buddhist values with these Protestant ones.

A secularized version of Protestant values is now the code of public decorum for the American middle class. That is, to be middle class in America, you need to demonstrate that you can conform to this value system when ritually required to do so. I think that Consensus Buddhism functions (for its adherents, not the leadership) mainly as training in how to conform to that code. This is the reason the Consensus appeals only to the middle class. (The working class and upper class think these values are ridiculous.)

During the 1970s, the American middle class split into the left/green-meme middle class, and the right/blue-meme middle class. Previously, Protestant public values had defined the middle class, but that was now no longer an option for the green half of it.

Consensus Buddhism is one solution to the problem of “how do I demonstrate publicly that I am a proper, ‘good,’ ethically-correct person, if I can no longer do that by going to church?” It just removes the Biblical mythology from the value system and substitutes a sprinkling of Buddhist mythology.

Tantra, obviously, does not have Protestant values. I think tantra may be useful to people who want to escape the limitations of the restrictive middle class world-view. As the economic basis for the Western middle class is shrinking, this may be an increasing fraction of the population.

I am struggling to decide whether to write more about this. It’s interesting but a big topic, and I have way too many!

David Chapman 2013-11-25

Putting this in a more positive way, Consensus Buddhism and liberal Christianity seem to be facing similar crises of relevance.

When no one really believes the mythology any more, what is left? Both struggle to find ways to distinguish themselves from secular humanism.

Joining forces might be an option. Consensus Buddhism brings meditation, which has great genuine value and popular appeal (although it is in danger of losing that to McMindfulness). Liberal Christianity brings a century or so of hard thinking and personal exploration of what spirituality can mean in a secular society, and when “God” is understood mostly as a metaphor. This also has popular appeal, and genuine value, with much more serious thinking-through than Consensus Buddhism can offer.

I can’t take the speculation any further than that. Maybe it’s just silly, I don’t know!

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-25

Neither Buddhism nor Christianity brings anything. Its you your action that brings results. Lazy and following their mood, people love to waste their times in speculations. McConsumy is the hero, yet even this gets poring…

Emma 2013-11-25

David - thanks for expanding on your comments re: consensus buddhism and liberal christianity. Definitely gave me more food for thought…

…but my overall two cents on your writing project is, don’t stress about saying more on this topic for now. Interesting to be sure, but count me among the readers waiting for the real “goods” - how tantric paths can / may develop in modern culture.

For example, you write, “I think tantra may be useful to people who want to escape the limitations of the restrictive middle class worldview.” I certainly hope so. That’s what’s missing for me in most modern buddhisms I have encountered…a feeling of “breaking out” or cracking open something new. But NOT breaking out of human existence or the human condition, rather coming into full body contact with it all.

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-25

“But NOT breaking out of human existence or the human condition, rather coming into full body contact with it all.” Serves greed very well, doesn’t it. So may there many how are possibly to scarify for your pleasure.

jamie 2013-11-26

For what it’s worth — and without being a complete apologist for early Buddhism – I think the context for the statements about sex need to be taken into account. In a time that is without reliable birth control, high levels of social responsibility, no industrial automation of work, and short lives that typically lasted 40 years I’m guessing… for a woman or man to have a child would basically mean that their free time was taken away for their entire life. The methods that were known by Buddha for awakening could not be used, because for him it took seven years of 100% practice. So I can understand with why he piled on the negative language surrounding sex, especially for those who managed to remove themselves from family obligations and become beggars, those that “had a chance”. I don’t agree with the sentiment, I think the language is heavy handed and quite toxic, but I can understand why such a hardline stance was taken.

Just wanted to make that comment since I think it is part of the puzzle of understanding the traditional teachings.

Obviously there is a huge potential for making early teachings into dogma, but you’re handling that discussion just fine! Thanks, I’m enjoying this series.

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-26

It is much simpler, jamie, from a practical side, if special beggars are potential inseminaters, it is sure that they are a danger for people.
If they start to be a danger or a potential competitor, that they need to sell drugs to stay on the marked. Like everybody does. So its not only direct for the own practice, that one who walks the holly way starts to abstain for harming und taking what is not given, step by step, but also very practical, to have a possibility to survive. At least virtue is the reason for being worthy for gift. Such a sage does never use your gifts against your welfare at least.

alfayate 2013-11-28

I don’t get it

It started quite straight and clear but in the end, I’m afraid I can’t figure out what’s the point of this long post. Is it some kind of tantric exercise? Are you trying to equate sutras with ‘over the top’ tantras?

If the point is ‘Consensus is wrong’ I think you’ve already done that (and in a much clearer and sharper way) in your Consensus Series.

If it’s ‘renunciation is cool, so cool in fact that it’s only suitable for very few people, so let’s forget about it because, in practice, renunciation sucks’ I can’t make any sense of it and I think it’s even contradictory with some of your previous statements: if Tantra is not (not anymore, at least) drinking semen and menstrual blood, why Sutra should be becoming a dummy angel? Extreme renunciation may be giving up all sensory enjoyments and ending all non-religious connections and responsibilities, but you don’t have (and probably most people mustn’t) to run 100 km through a desert to be physically fit. My point is that renunciation is central if you’re into Sutrayana, but that doesn’t mean giving up you job and family, shaving your head and become a monk forever. Anyway, I agree that Consensus has replaced renunciation (any kind of renunciation) with indulgence, confusing avoiding the suffering with indolence. ‘Dharma has become a commodity’ as Thanissaro Bikkhu said in the interview.

If your point it’s ‘old Buddhism was fanatically renunciative’, I can’t argue with you, since I’m not a scholar not even a dilettante of Buddhist history; it’s just that I suspect that these examples you give are (as usually happens with religious traditions) an ‘extremistic’ evolution in response to a period of decay.

But the biggest problem I have with this post is that doesn’t meet your (usually high) standards of writing in terms of quality and clarity. Well, none can be at 100% all the time. Hope you get back to it soon.

Best wishes

Johann (Hanzze) 2013-11-28

Expect nothing is a good start, so even annoyed, you have gained a lot by dispassion already. :-) Now try to renounce.

5GhostFist 2013-12-03

David,

I’d like to invite you to examine your hermenuetic. Analyzing modern Sutrayana by going back to the Sutras is a bit like explainig Judaism through Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Reading these books, one would conclude that Judaism is a strict militaristic doctrine that approves slavery and dispenses capital punishment. It has of course adapted to Modern ethics. One could call Rabbinical Judaism “consensus Judaism.”

Buddhism changes when it lands on foreign soil, Tibet combined it with Bon, and Japan with Shinto. In the West, Buddhism joined with the Western philosopical tradition. Buddhist meditation centers strike me as resembling the Greek philosophical schools. I’ve often wondered why there are not similar centers teaching Stoicism and Epicureanism.

David Chapman 2013-12-03

Hi, thanks for the comment!

I agree that insisting that recent Sutrayana is, or should be, based on the sutras is a common, important mistake. (I wrote about this a couple years ago.)

However, I don’t think I made that mistake in this post. I quoted authors from many different Buddhist cultures and eras, up through the 20th century. And the point is, renunciation is still central for Sutrayana in every Asian Buddhism today. Does that seem wrong?

5GhostFist 2013-12-07

Yes, you have indeed made that point. My apologies.

Rachel 2013-12-10

I saw this

“I’m trying to be both a Buddhist and a businessman.”
“What’s the most difficult part of that?”
“Wanting to be successful, while at the same time letting go of the attachment to desire.”
“Isn’t that impossible?”
“You can desire. You just can’t be attached to desire. It’s about living in the moment and enjoying the attempt to realize your ideas, while at the same time letting go of the need for a positive outcome.”
http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/69424392586/im-trying-to-be-both-a-buddhist-and-a

and immediately thought of this post.

David Chapman 2013-12-10

Thanks, Rachel! I think this is probably a sensible & workable approach. What I don’t know is where it comes from. Not Buddhist scripture, so far as I know (but I don’t know the later Mahayana scriptures at all well). I would guess Zen, which goes well beyond scripture, but it might be purely Western. It’s not the tantric approach, in which you’d actively transform the desire. Perhaps more like Mahamudra?

Does anyone else know?

Kate Gowen 2013-12-10

Sounds like Krishna’s advice to Arjuna, updated for modern sensibilities.

kerm 2013-12-18

Agreed, in the Bhagavid Gita, Krishna says, “You have the right to work, but not to the fruits of your work.” In other words, do your best and let the chips fall where they may.

erikodo 2015-09-10

Meditation is renunciation. By closing your eyes, you’re renouncing the sense of sight. If you follow the precepts, you’re renouncing a large set of actions by body, speech and mind. Indeed, just being content is renouncing the willing and planning and craving to be somewhere else.

Just by saying ‘this is good enough’ you are renouncing craving.

Consider “It 49: Held by Views”: https://suttacentral.net/en/it49

“And how, bhikkhus, do some hold back? Devas and humans enjoy being, delight in being, are satisfied with being. When Dhamma is taught to them for the cessation of being, their minds do not enter into it or acquire confidence in it or settle upon it or become resolved upon it. Thus, bhikkhus, do some hold back.

“How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed, and disgusted by this very same being and they rejoice in (the idea of) non-being, asserting: ‘In as much as this self, good sirs, when the body perishes at death, is annihilated and destroyed and does not exist after death—this is peaceful, this is excellent, this is reality!’ Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach.

“How, bhikkhus, do those with vision see? Herein a bhikkhu sees what has come to be as having come to be. Having seen it thus, he practises the course for turning away, for dispassion, for the cessation of what has come to be. Thus, bhikkhus, do those with vision see.”

I think you are, perhaps, confusing renunciation for ‘overreaching’ here. Renunciation is not as simple as saying “the world sucks, everything is bad.”

Also, the ‘pleasure of renunciation’ is the deep meditation that is the result of renunciation. The whole point is that the pleasure of meditation is a lot better than any pleasure you can get out of the five senses.

Of the pleasure from the five senses it is said it should “not to be cultivated, not to be developed, not to be pursued, that it is to be feared.”

But the pleasure of the sixth sense (the mind), that of the jhanas, “is called renunciation-pleasure, seclusion-pleasure, calm-pleasure, self-awakening-pleasure. And of this pleasure I say that it is to be cultivated, to be developed, to be pursued, that it is not to be feared.” (source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.066.than.html)

Consider also, that when a monk asks the Buddha for ‘the Dhamma in brief’ so that he can practice, i.e. what to actually do, the Buddha gives the development of the four brahmaviharas as reply (source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.063.than.html)

How can developing loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to it’s fullest be ‘the Dhamma in brief’? My point here being that there is more to this idea of renunciation than being grossed out by the world.

Also, that bit about the monk who had sex: it would be better that he put his penis in the mouth of a snake than in a vagina, not because sex is so bad, but because of all the bad kamma he made for himself for having sex as a monk. The point is to drive home how much bad kamma he has made; it’s going to be worse for that monk than having a snake bite his dong.

Yes, sex isn’t good in Buddhism, but if you look at the suttas where the Buddha is teaching layfollowers:

“A wise man should avoid unchastity as (he would avoid falling into) a pit of glowing charcoal. If unable to lead a celibate life, he should not go to another’s wife.” (source: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.2.14.irel.html)

If you can’t be celibate, than at least don’t cheat. Not exactly brimstone and fire.

Be well! :-)

fripsidelover9110 2015-09-30

Probably the best, the most informative one of all the posts on this blog I have read so far (at least for me). I’m surprised, even a bit shocked to hear that (some) American Buddhists are so resistant to accept that Buddhism is a religion of ‘No Sex’ in general (except for a few notable exceptions, such as Tantric Buddhism).

It’s not that I have never heard of anything about American Buddhist value, ethics, disposition - liberalism, environmentalism, social engagement, openness, Anti-sectarian sentiments etc… -.

But it’s far beyond my expectation that they are so much resistant to the notion, Buddhism as a religion of No-Sex.

To most (traditional, back warded) traditional, dogmatic Korean Buddhists (including myself), that would be much more surprise than the fact that many American Buddhists prefer ‘liberal, secular’ interpretation of Karma & Rebirth doctrine.

David Chapman 2015-09-30

Glad you found this useful!

But it’s far beyond my expectation that they are so much resistant to the notion, Buddhism as a religion of No-Sex.

Yes, this is utterly shocking for American Buddhists (who are mainly completely unaware of it). “Sex is good” is one of the most important principles of American leftish secular morality (and therefore of American “Buddhist ethics”).

To most (traditional, back warded) traditional, dogmatic Korean Buddhists (including myself), that would be much more surprise than the fact that many American Buddhists prefer ‘liberal, secular’ interpretation of Karma & Rebirth doctrine.

Yes; Asian Buddhism started to question karma and rebirth back in the 1850s (Mongkut basically rejected it). The modern Buddhisms of most Asian countries reinterpret it, at least. It’s only in America in the 1980s that sexual liberalism was declared “Buddhist,” and that hasn’t be exported back to any Asian country, so far as I know.

It’s funny how different American and Asian Buddhisms are from each other, and how ignorant Americans are of this! Maybe funny how ignorant Asians are of it too :-)

michau 2015-11-05

Re: Abandoning craving vs. abandoning objects

Sutrayana explicitly rejects this comfortable approach. It is true that craving is ultimately the problem, not objects; but objects automatically cause and increase craving.

This isn’t in agreement with what I learnt on a fairly traditional Theravada-ish meditation course (by S.N. Goenka). It was said that the six senses cause sensations on the body, which can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The point of vipassana is to equanimously observe the sensations on the body, have neither craving nor aversion towards them, and be aware of their impermanence. So the point is, no matter what objects are perceived by your senses, as long as you observe the bodily sensations caused by them and not react to them, the link is broken and they won’t cause craving (nor aversion). I thought it was a fairly mainstream Buddhist view of how the mind works, am I wrong?

David Chapman 2015-11-05

Goenka’s system is not traditional at all. It’s more traditional than the Consensus, but it’s almost perfectly dissimilar to Theravada before it was Protestantized in the late 1800s.

The point of vipassana is to equanimously observe the sensations on the body, have neither craving nor aversion towards them, and be aware of their impermanence.

My understanding is that this is not a traditional practice. Goenka made it up. It is a very distant derivative of the actually-traditional practice of meditation on the foulness of one’s own body. That meditation consists of considering each part of your body conceptually and trying to convince yourself that it is revolting.

no matter what objects are perceived by your senses, as long as you observe the bodily sensations caused by them and not react to them, the link is broken and they won’t cause craving (nor aversion). I thought it was a fairly mainstream Buddhist view of how the mind works, am I wrong?

In the post, I quoted a whole series of scriptural passages that say you are wrong.

michau 2015-11-05
Goenka’s system is not traditional at all. It’s more traditional than the Consensus, but it’s almost perfectly dissimilar to Theravada before it was Protestantized in the late 1800s.

As far as I understand, hardly anyone meditated in the period before Theravada was Protestantised. So for a meditation technique, I’d say it’s as traditional as we can get.

Goenka made it up.

Goenka surely didn’t make it up. This technique can be traced back to Ledi Sayadaw, and AFAIK there is no evidence on whether he invented it or learnt it from somebody.

very distant derivative of the actually-traditional practice of meditation on the foulness of one’s own body

In what way is it related? The vipassana technique I learnt involves no visualisation, no imagining, no convincing, but just observing sensations. I can’t see anything common at all.

I quoted a whole series of scriptural passages that say you are wrong.

Most of them seem to be just about sex, so I guess they say I’m wrong, but only with regard to one specific kind of pleasure. I couldn’t find anything here that would say that any pleasant sensation will invariably cause craving. Perhaps Balisika Sutta could be interpreted that way, but it’s by no means unambiguous. I don’t know what is exactly meant by “relishing”, but it seems to me that it is something that involves craving. And it it said “if you relish these”, which means that it’s optional.

David Chapman 2015-11-05
In what way is it related?

Historically. My recollection is that the practice started with the meditation on the foulness of the body, and successive re-inventions during the twentieth century eventually transformed it into what Goenka taught. I don’t remember off-hand where I read this, so my memory may be incorrect.

At this point you seem to be more interested in proving I’m wrong about something (anything, you don’t seem to care what) than in having a dialog. I’m not interested in arguing. I will ignore you if you continue.

michau 2015-11-05

Sorry if I made such an impression, I didn’t mean that. I learnt a lot about Buddhism from your blog.

Indranil Choudhury 2016-03-24

Dear Mr. Chapman,

I am a Buddhist from India. I like your “approach”, that’s the only reason I’m posting here. I would like to clarify a few things from you with about which I am confused. These are as follows:
1. One case mentioned here is that of a monastic student having sex with his wife for filial duty while he had accepted monastic practices & the Buddha practically scourges him. Now that, if I have understood you correctly, is a “complete denial” of sex and by “American secular Buddhist standards”, a monk having sex with his wife is OK? Given the whole context of the story, does it fit for the example intended?

I also got an impression from your writing that these monastic codes were also for the laymen as prescribed by the Buddha. So, in a way, “a layman = monk + family” !!!
If I have understood you correctly, the Buddha advocated avoiding the slightest contact from the things that may arouse sense pleasures. But eating a meal always invokes sense pleasure ( at least with me and each and every one I got to know at my 40 years of age !! ). And the Buddha used to eat meal, may be a little, but yes for sure!!! What was he doing? Hypocrisy? Praying on innocents? Please explain.

In much simpler terms, “Surely renunciation isn’t essential in Buddhism! It’s one of those pointless traditions we’ve dropped, without losing anything significant.”- That’s a Western myth; and “renunciation is crucial to eastern traditions” is a reality, that is the prominent theme in your writing. But I am an eastern Buddhists and I do not find any of your understanding of eastern traditions in India or among the Theravada community (both lay and monastic) from other eastern traditions!!!!

If your comments gives me this impression, is it my fault in understanding or something else (and I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone, just curious) ??

Thanks & Regards

David Chapman 2016-03-24

Hi,

Now that, if I have understood you correctly, is a “complete denial” of sex and by “American secular Buddhist standards”, a monk having sex with his wife is OK? Given the whole context of the story, does it fit for the example intended?

I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you are asking here. American secular Buddhism doesn’t say anything about monks, because it doesn’t have them. Many (not all) traditional Asian Buddhisms said that lay people ought not to have sex, and that they should have as little as possible if they were going to do it at all.

I also got an impression from your writing that these monastic codes were also for the laymen as prescribed by the Buddha.

Hmm, no, vinaya is explicitly only for monks and nuns. On the other hand, the lay precepts appear to be a sort of weak derivative of vinaya; maybe that’s what you are thinking of?

But eating a meal always invokes sense pleasure.

As I mentioned in the post, there is a practice of developing revulsion for food by mentally associating it with dog’s vomit. If you accomplish that, then you eat only because you have to in order to live, even though you find it revolting.

I am an eastern Buddhists and I do not find any of your understanding of eastern traditions in India or among the Theravada community (both lay and monastic) from other eastern traditions!!!!

Asian Theravada has been extensively modernized over the past 150 years, and bears little resemblance to what it was previously. I’ve written about this in many posts; this page might be one good starting point.

Best wishes,

David

Indranil Choudhury 2016-03-24

Hmmm,

Either I don’t understand the answers or I am unable to put the questions understandably. ( May be its a place for whitemen with christian background only who understands buddhism better than eastern buddhists! ) Anyways, thanks for your effort.

With Regards

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