Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers

Brad Warner has just blogged about the Maha Teachers Council. He thinks it’s a problem that he was not invited—not because his ego’s offended, but because it means the conference organizers are actively excluding what he represents.

I think he’s right. In fact, I suspect the conference is all about what he represents, and that is why he wasn’t invited. [Update: apparently he was sent an invitation that got lost.] But his piece doesn’t explain what that is and why they are excluding that. Here’s my theory.

  • Brad Warner spits on the Nice Buddhist Consensus. (More about this below.)
  • He is not a traditionalist. The Consensus wants to dismiss most alternatives as motivated by cultural conservatism.
  • His credentials are impeccable. He can’t be dismissed as a self-appointed “fake” teacher.
  • He has no significant organized following, so he can’t be dismissed as a cult leader.
  • He does not charge for teaching, so he can’t be dismissed as a spiritual entrepreneur. On the other hand, he criticizes the Consensus establishment for selling Dharma—a vulnerable point for them.
  • He has too large a following to ignore.
  • Especially, he appeals to people born after 1965, which the Consensus mostly doesn’t.

Here’s his own take on the shindig:

My fear is that Buddhism in America is going exactly the same direction as punk did when it became codified into a single prevailing fashion and sound. There is an accepted group of tastemakers and trendsetters within American Buddhism. They are entrenched as such and seek constantly to reify their positions and to expand their influence…

This conference “further consolidates a power base for a select group of individuals to determine the mainstream Buddhist message” in the words of Marnie Louise Froberg in her blog Mudhashala. It’s not that these people can enact any sort of legislation that is in any way binding. But they do have the power of their magazines and their institutes to push their version of the American Buddhist status quo.

I agree with this, but I think there’s a dimension that he and Marnie Louise Froberg are missing: the Western Buddhist elite are running scared. Something important is happening, and they don’t understand it.  They can’t understand from within their framework of “Boomeritis Buddhism.”

But, the “Maha Teachers” now understand that they don’t understand, and they are trying to figure it out. My guess is that is an unstated purpose of the conference.

If they do figure it out, they may try to quash it, or they may try to coopt it. (Much of the blogosphere comment so far has been concern about this.)

I hope, instead, that the Maha Teachers might genuinely embrace it. I’d like to think that the establishment Nice Buddhists are good guys; they are just locked into a wrong worldview. Maybe they can escape it. Maybe they’ll tear down the Consensus from within. (But that would mean letting go…)

Spitting on the Consensus

I’m blogging in a hurry, as events unfold, so I haven’t yet explained what the Consensus is. A big part of it concerns the proper role of Buddhist teachers. (This was the main subject of the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conference, which established the Consensus.) Brad Warner’s description is that the Consensus says teachers should be professional, which he adamantly refuses to be.

In Karma Dipped in Chocolate, he plays up his having sex with a student, his marital infidelity, and his drug use. He doesn’t clearly explain why. Here’s my take on that.

The Consensus wants to have a bunch of legalistic rules about what Buddhist teachers can and cannot do. This is antithetical to at least some forms of Buddhism (including Zen and Vajrayana).

The point is that, in context, his sex & drug activities were clearly benign (assuming he is telling the truth about the context, which no one seems to dispute). Meanwhile, the Western Buddhist establishment’s attempts at standards, credentials, and governance has clearly failed to prevent genuinely bad behavior by Western Buddhist teachers. (The Genpo affair, on which Brad Warner and Marnie Froberg have both commented extensively, is the most recent major example.)

This suggests that a legalistic approach of teacher behavioral standards can’t work. In fact, Zen and Vajrayana both make it explicit that rule-based ethics can’t work, more generally.

So, his sex & drug stories in Chocolate spit in the face of the Consensus.

[Update: Brad has blogged about my post here. (Thanks!) It’s a somewhat mixed review but does end “nice articles.” I’ve tried to correct the inaccuracies he noted.]

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview

This page is an outline of my series on the “crumbling mainstream Western Buddhist consensus.”


Several pages introduce the theme of the series. I wrote these in a rush, as I explain in a preface, and they are not as worked-out as later posts.

I began with a summary, which is now out of date and needs revision, but may still be useful.

Brad Warner vs. the Maha Teachers

I started to post this series when news broke of the 2011 Garrison Institute Maha Teachers Conference. This was the first major get-together of the “Consensus” Western Buddhist establishment in ten years. I think this was important because it suggests that the “Consensus” recognizes that something is wrong with its approach.

I had been planning the series for a couple of years, but it wasn’t really ready to go yet. However, the Maha Conference prompted me to go ahead anyway.

“Nice” Buddhism

This page explains some of what “Consensus Western Buddhism” is; its key ideas, values, and worldview.

It also begins to explain why the consensus is in crisis.

Traditional and modern Buddhism: an oppressive duopoly

Consensus Western Buddhism is a “modernist” movement. So, it defines itself partly with reference to and against Buddhist traditionalism; and partly as aligned with other modernist movements.

Buddhism (in Asia as well as in the West) is now polarized into modernist and traditional versions. I suggest that neither of these is workable. Nor is some compromise or Middle Way between them the right answer.

Key texts

These have shaped my understanding of the current crisis in Western Buddhism:

I have a full page on The Making of Modern Buddhism, the most important influence on this series.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Buddhism sees itself as extremely inclusive and open to everyone. It’s blind to the reasons it actually excludes most people other than politically-correct white folks from the Baby Boom generation.

Its non-appeal to younger generations is the major sign of crisis.

The modernization of Buddhism in Asia: 1850-1950

I was astonished to discover that much of what we think of as “Western” Buddhism was created in Asia, more than a hundred years ago, under Western influence. This is not widely understood. Many things we think of as “traditional Buddhism” are authentically Asian, but were invented only recently. Knowing that they are not “timeless Eastern wisdom” makes it easier to ask whether we want them.

Buddhism vs. colonialism

Modern Buddhism was forged in Asia, in the late 1800s, as an ideological weapon against Western colonial aggression. It was surprisingly successful. But, we ought to ask whether a system developed for that purpose is ideal for our current needs.

Protestant Buddhism

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a “Protestant Buddhism” reform movement radically reshaped the religion. Based on core concepts from Protestant Christianity, this is the Buddhism we have today.

Mostly, I think these reforms were a good thing, but I’ll suggest that some Protestant Buddhist themes we take for granted may actually be unhelpful for our time.

Problems with scripture

Giving ultimate religious authority to scripture, rather than tradition, was one of the key Protestant Christian reforms. Protestant Buddhism has done the same. In both cases, this causes problems because scripture requires interpretation.

A new World Religion

A hundred years ago, it was politically imperative to remake Buddhism to conform to a particular European concept of what a “World Religion” was supposed to look like. A World Religion needed to be just like Christianity, only more modern (according to the 1900 standard of “modern.”) This concept is obsolete, but it has left deep marks on the Buddhism we have now. Some may now be unhelpful.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

This post describes the modernization of Zen under political, religious, and military pressure from the West.

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Mongkut, the King of Siam, radically reformed Theravada Buddhism to conform to Western ideas. His creation is the single largest contribution to contemporary Western Buddhism.

Modern meditation

The meditation techniques that are most widely practiced now were invented less than a hundred years ago, in Asia, under Western influence. Most traditional meditation techniques have been ignored or rejected because they didn’t conform to Western values.

I am not a traditionalist, and I don’t believe “older is better.” However, I think we’ve lost some valuable practices because they were unacceptable to Protestant missionaries or to 1970s hippies.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Modern vipassana, and mindfulness meditation, were invented recently in Thailand and Burma. That doesn’t make them “inauthentic,” in my view. It does show that these methods are not set in stone, straight from the Buddha’s mouth. So there is room for continued innovation, and also for recovery of earlier practices that might again be valuable.

The essence of all religions?

Many Western Buddhists take for granted a particular “mystical” understanding of what meditation does and how. I think this understanding is wrong. Also, although it may be traditional for some Buddhisms, it is certainly not at all the mainstream traditional Buddhism view. So it is at least open to question.

What got left out of “meditation”?

This post describes some of the many practices that modern Buddhism has abandoned, and why. I think the reasons are often not good ones, and we’ve lost much of value. Later posts suggest ways those practices can be recovered.

Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism

I discuss corpse practice, a particularly unacceptable traditional meditation method, and explain why it is valuable.

Effing the ineffable

The mystical (mis)interpretation of meditation is defended with claims that enlightenment experiences are ineffable. This post points out that ineffability cannot justify big metaphysical ideas. Those have to stand on their own two feet, not rely on vague pronouncements about the meaning of dramatic meditation experiences.

Who’s got it?

Metaphysical claims about meditation and enlightenment are often justified by pointing at what supposedly-enlightened people say. Unfortunately, they say quite different things. Also unfortunately, we have not good way of telling who is enlightened.

The quest for the True Self

Modern Buddhism often explains meditation as a method for examining internal experience to see through the false self (or ego), to find the True Self. I suggest that this is a mistake—not least because there is no True Self.

The quest for The Absolute

The monist (mis)interpretation of meditation sees enlightenment as unification with The Absolute, which is the Ultimate Truth, the undifferentiated One, the source of all goodness, and The Entire Universe. I suggest that there is no such thing. It’s actually the Christian God in disguise, and God is undead.

Monist meditation causes the problem it seeks to treat

The monist All-Is-One approach tries to connect a non-existent True Self with a non-existent Absolute. Both of these are vague abstractions. Meditating this way actively hinders the creation of concrete connections with real-world specifics.

So what is meditation, then?

Some Western Buddhists may be unable to conceive of any other explanation for meditation and enlightenment. In fact, traditional Buddhisms offer several. Here I sketch two. Neither is necessarily the right one, but this shows that there are non-monist alternatives.


Most traditional Buddhist practice is ritual. Ritual is unacceptable to modernism, and Western Buddhism mostly abandoned it. In this section, I explain the valuable functions of ritual; the reasons we don’t like it; and ways of overcoming those reasons. I suggest that we could reinvent Buddhist ritual in ways suitable for our time.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Renunciation, transformation, and Tantra

Western Buddhism is based mainly on modernized Theravada, whose fundamental principle is the renunciation of desire. Unfortunately, Westerners have zero interest in renunciation, so this doesn’t work well.

What Western Buddhists want is personal transformation. That’s an entirely different thing, requiring entirely different methods. Consensus Buddhism has incorporated non-Buddhist transformative methods, from psychotherapy and the New Age.

As it happens, there is a branch of Buddhism that aims at transformation, through enjoyment, namely Tantra (Vajrayana). It was designed specifically for lay people, who have no interest in giving up sensory pleasure. I suggest that Tantric Buddhism would be a better starting point for Western Buddhism. There are serious obstacles to that, but I hope they can be overcome.

Unfortunately, Tantra is not nice. That means it has been actively suppressed by the Consensus.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Buddhist Perennialism: enforced consensus

Perennialism” is the claim that all religions are essentially the same.

Buddhist Perennialism is the claim that all Buddhist traditions have a shared essence, and that core is what is really important. Whatever is not shared must be culturally-specific, is irrelevant to the West, and should be abandoned.

Buddhist Perennialism is one of the major strategies the Consensus establishment has used to suppress alternatives. It implies that anything outside the Consensus is conservative traditionalism, and any opposition to the Consensus is a nasty, narrow, sectarian attack on the sacred shared Buddhist core.

Perennialism also suggests that Buddhism has essentially the same message as other religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism. This is used as a strategy to white-wash importing dubious Christian and Hindu values and concepts into Buddhism.

Problems with priests

This section discusses the difficulties Western Buddhism has had with the teacher/student relationship. I look at Protestant Christianity as a model.

What Buddhist ethics?

Consensus Buddhism equals mindfulness meditation plus ethics. Here I express skepticism that Buddhism has anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.

Consensus Buddhism: 1960—2005

This section traces the history of “Consensus” Buddhism—the modern Western mainstream. Understanding how it became what it is helps understand its limitations, and where we might go next.

If I ever get out of here

Consensus Buddhism was created by self-described hippies. This post looks at their early history, in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Saving the world

I see all forms of Buddhism as solutions to social and cultural problems that arise at particular times. This post looks at the problems experienced by the Baby Boom creators of Consensus Buddhism, and explains how they tried to solve them.

Trungpa Rinpoche & Nice Buddhism

One of the main motivations for the creation of the Consensus was to avoid any repeat of the Chögyam Trungpa debacle.  Trungpa Rinpoche was a “controversial” Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who did some things he probably shouldn’t have. His appointed successor did worse things.

Apart from the actual harm done, this was seen as disastrous negative publicity for Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism). Part of the founding self-definition of the Consensus is we are nothing like Trungpa, and we’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Especially, we are going to ensure that everybody who’s allowed to teach Buddhism is extremely nice.

Unfortunately, “niceness” is incompatible with most of Buddhism. That meant that most of Buddhism was collateral damage when the establishment suppressed any possible manifestations of Trungpa-like-ness.

The Dharmasala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences

The current Western Buddhist establishment seems to have been pulled together as a political bloc at the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference.

Its main theme was “Let’s stomp on anyone who might do anything alarming.”

Heartening signs of impending collapse

Here I collect various indications that the Consensus is breaking down, mainly not because of attack from outside, but due to its own internal contradictions.

Several of the leaders of the establishment seem to have figured out that Consensus Western Buddhism doesn’t work even for them. And it’s glaringly obvious that it isn’t working for the post-Boomer generations.

Buddhism after systems

Here I expand on the argument I’ve made earlier that the biggest threat to Buddhism is the contemporary wholesale rejection of all systems, and the “shattering” of ideologies by consumer culture.

If Buddhism is to survive, it may have to adapt to a world in which no one “belongs to” any religion; in which we all assemble fluid identities out of disparate fragments of culture.

That is a world in which no “mainstream” or “consensus” is possible. “Buddhism” will disintegrate: not just into its many schools and lineages, but into its innumerable diverse practices, theories, and ways of talking.

This may be unfortunate, but I think it’s inevitable. Trying to hold systems together is doomed. So the question is, what can we do to best help those who will inherit this fragmentation?

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Summary

We may be at a momentous turn in Buddhist history.

Since the early 1990s, “Buddhism” in the West has been defined in a narrow, peculiar way.

Narrow: Consensus Western Buddhism has actively suppressed competing alternatives. This was a deliberate policy, and its success was a striking political accomplishment on the part of the creators of the forced consensus.

Peculiar: it is almost unrecognizably different from traditional Buddhism in Asia. (Its relationship with Asian Buddhism is complicated; I will sketch some of its history, which helps explain its present, and suggests future directions.)

In this blog series, I suggest that Consensus Western Buddhism has been bad for two reasons:

Doesn’t work for most people: it is based on a worldview and values that appeal only to a particular social group. Roughly, the “green” market segment of the Western middle-to-upper-middle class (“Bobos,” “LOHAS“), mainly from the Baby Boom generation.

Suppressed alternatives: the manufactured consensus has marginalized other Buddhist approaches that could have been useful to a broader range of people. The main problem with the consensus is its hegemonic rule.

Fortunately, it appears that the consensus is starting to break down.

“What next?” seems the critical question now. There are two parts to this: how will the Consensus react, and how can those of us outside it be helpful?

The natural reaction of a hegemonic consensus, when it perceives that it is losing its grip on its boundaries, is to try to preserve itself via force. It would be nice to think that Buddhists would not do this. The impermanence of the self is supposedly central to Buddhism—let it go! Buddhist history is not encouraging on this point, unfortunately. Buddhist establishments have frequently suppressed dissent with force.

Still, I am hopeful that the Western Buddhist establishment will recognize the irony, and will be willing to let go their grip. But only if they see a workable alternative future.

For those of us outside the Consensus, its new weakness is an opportunity to promote our own alternative agendas. And, frankly, we may want to actively encourage its collapse.

But we have a bigger responsibility: not only to our particular outside-consensus lineages, but also to ensuring the survival of Buddhism period. That means developing a broad view of what Buddhism now is, how it got that way, and they ways it can work over the next few decades.

The creators and enforcers of the Western Buddhist Consensus are trapped inside their own narrow worldview, and cannot see out. Some of them now realize that, and they are actively groping in the dark for the ways out of their cell. Suggestions shouted from outside may help.

The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Preface

Yikes! Buddhist history is moving faster than I expected.

A couple years ago, I noticed that the Mainstream Western Buddhist Consensus had started to crumble at the edges. Younger teachers broke out of the rigid psychotherpeutically-correct Nice Buddhism model, and some senior Western teachers who had been pushing it for 15 years were starting, tentatively but publicly, to question it.

That was exciting, because I think the enforced consensus has been a Really Bad Thing. I predicted that this would accelerate and burst into the open in a couple of years.

So I started writing a book about it. (You can take the boy out of academia, but you can’t take academia out of the boy.) Fascinating as I found this subject, though, it seemed less important than the other two books I was writing. So all I have so far is a pile of half-baked notes and scattered thoughts.

It now appears that the “Maha Teachers Council” may be the venue where the creators of the Consensus are strategizing about their problem.  (Hat tip: NellaLou, who discusses this in detail in her Buddhist blog.) Their conference is happening right now, and it’s going to be written up in the Fall 2011 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.

So, if I’m going to write about this usefully, it has to be now. Instead of a carefully-researched book, I am going to do a blog series: a big brain dump of semi-digested ideas, odd facts, and wild-assed guesses.

I don’t like that. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I like to check all my facts carefully, survey the existing literature exhaustively, search for alternative explanations, and make sure my arguments are completely coherent. There isn’t time for that, so I am going to attempt to blog with reckless abandon, and clean up the mess later if need be. I apologize in advance for the certainty that I will get some things wrong.

The crumbling Western Buddhist consensus is a politically sensitive topic. I will suggest that some people have done some bad things. It’s especially important to get your facts straight when doing that—and this has been the main reason I have held off on writing about this before.

From the start, I want to be clear that I do not and will not condemn any individual or group. Everyone has mixed good and bad motivations, but I think that the creation and enforcement of the Consensus was mainly misguided rather than an evil plan for world domination.

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken

The Aesthetic of Meditation is Broken” is the most recent conversation on the often-interesting Buddhist Geeks site. It’s a design view of meditation culture.

Design is a way of seeing, and a way of knowing, and a way of doing; and it’s a huge part of what I do and how and why, so it’s natural that I found this to my taste. And it’s natural that I found Rohan Gunatillake, the interviewee, saying things I’ve been going on about for a while.

Here are some of them.

It’s not just for Boomers anymore

Buddhism and meditation are mostly a Baby Boom thing. If Buddhism is going to survive, and if 30-somethings are going to meditate, that’s going to have to change. Because the current packaging is generation-specific.

The problems is, Boomers don’t realize they are talking Boomerese. They are unaware that their experience and world-view are not universal, and that their reference points are irrelevant to many in younger generations. I’ve tried to explain this to some, and have so far failed. Change is urgent, and it looks like it has to come from younger teachers.

Lose the goddamn wind chimes

Meditation, and Buddhism, are positioned in the market as products for holistic airheads. In Gunatillake’s words, “it’s all purple patchouli and woo woo language.”

Perhaps meditation and Buddhism can be useful to holistic airheads, but they’re more useful to people willing to do hard work and to understand how the real world works.

To work, meditation has to be rooted in the place and time you live in. Pretending we are in rural medieval India or China or Tibet is an escapist fantasy.

So is pretending that we live—or ever could—in a 1960s hippie utopia.

Looks count

Gunatillake is a professional web designer, and his Buddhist meditation web site doesn’t look like a Buddhist meditation web site. (No wind chimes.) It has what he calls an “urban aesthetic”.

This is really important. Buddhism doesn’t have to look nice.

I worked hard on the visual design of my Buddhism for Vampires site. It really doesn’t look like a Buddhist web site. And that’s its point: Buddhism is for everyone, not just vegan aromatherapists.

User-centered design

I used to work in software design. To make insanely great software, you have to find out what prospective users actually do, what they actually need, what they actually want. This is hard.

Meditation centers too often offer what they think people ought to want, based on what they think people need and do. I suspect those ideas are often quite wrong. But meditation teachers are often quite sure of them anyway. The generational disconnect plays a part here. What meditation teachers offer is usually what they found useful in the 1970s.

To make insanely great software, you have to directly involve users in the design, from the beginning and throughout. Gunatillake suggests doing the same for the “delivery” of meditation instruction. I second the motion.

This does not mean giving users what they say they want. That’s a classic design error. Users aren’t designers, they don’t know what they need, and they don’t know what is possible. You have to co-design with users.

Buddhist teachers often object to taking student desires into account. “Telling people what they want to hear would water down the dharma, turning it into generic ‘spiritual’ pablum. They can’t know what’s good for them.” Alternatively, some teachers do give students what they say they want—and those do churn out generic spiritual platitudes.

So both these are are mistakes to avoid. And that’s hard. (Cue lecture on the First Noble Truth.)

But it’s worth a try.

Riding Solo to the Top of the World


Riding Solo to the Top of the World is an extraordinary documentary film about one man’s journey into the Himalayas. Under-employed filmmaker Gaurav Jani set out to document his motorcycle adventure in the Ladakh Changthang—the highest and most remote part of his native India. What he found there went far beyond adventure.

With no money to hire a camera crew, he shot the whole film himself, mainly from a tripod. This made an already arduous undertaking far more difficult; to get a distance shot of his bike inching along a mountain track above a river gorge, he would have to set the camera up on the opposite side, start it running, ride over to provide the action, and then ride (or often run) back to collect the camera.

This odd constraint, which seems as though it would make the film static and awkward, does quite the opposite. It adds both drama (can he manage this shot?) and a meditative peacefulness. It helps that the Changthang landscape is stunning and his cinematography outstanding.

His plan was a simple adventure story; but that was not what he got. He intended to take his bike over the highest motorable passes in the world, on seasonal military tracks above 18,000 feet, where no motorcycle had ever gone before. That might have been mainly interesting for motorcycle travel geeks, like his previous effort One Crazy Ride, about hard travel across Arunachal Pradesh. As it happens, he succeeded in his plan, after overcoming dire obstacles.

When he reached the Changthang, however, his plan was nearly derailed by a radical change of intention.

It’s a cliché to say that any hard travel has an internal and an external dimension. In this case, the internal dimension might have been expected to involve heroic determination overcoming hardship and loneliness. And there is some of that—but also, again, exactly the opposite.

The Changthang is culturally Tibetan. Its few inhabitants, the Changpas, are pastoral nomads who practice the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I also belong).

Gaurav Jani fell in love with the Changpas, and spent unplanned weeks living with them. Most of the movie is about his interactions with them, and about their religious practices. He filmed both their daily life and religious festivals.

He describes his inner transformation as a result of encountering Tibetan culture. It parallels my own experience in the Himalayas. There is a peacefulness, a freedom, a rightness in the way ordinary Tibetans live that is enormously appealing. After a few weeks, it changes you permanently. You can no longer find the busy modern way of life sane.

He is currently living with the Changpas full-time for a year, and making a new movie about how they survive the -40 degree winter.

Riding Solo is sometimes shown at film festivals, where it has won a slew of awards; but if you want to see it, you’ll probably have to buy the DVD.

Try the trailer if you aren’t sure.