The mindfulness crisis and the end of Consensus Buddhism

Secular “mindfulness” courses, promoted as stress-reduction treatments, have become more popular than Buddhism. A meditation method based on modern vipassana is their core.

Many Buddhists have strong mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s great that so many more people are experiencing the benefits of Buddhist-style meditation. On the other hand, “mindfulness” seems like weaksauce kitsch; it’s missing most of what’s important about Buddhism. There’s a worry that if Buddhism is “unbundled,” with its most attractive part available separately, it will disintegrate,1 and critical aspects of the whole will be lost. And isn’t the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

But… what is the important rest of Buddhism?

That’s a genuinely difficult, important question. I wrote about it in a post three years ago that foreshadows this one.

As I wrote that, Consensus Buddhism was organizing a political consensus that ethics is what makes it different from, and better than, secular mindfulness.2 They promoted and argued this in dozens of blog posts, mainstream media op-ed pieces, and pseudo-academic journals.3

In my 2012 post, I asked:

Is there any significant point on which American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics disagree?

My last several posts have explained why the answer is no. “Buddhist ethics” has nothing to do with Buddhism; it just is mainstream American leftist ethics. People who want that can get it elsewhere with less hassle, just as people who want meditation can get it elsewhere with less hassle.

So if Buddhism = mindfulness + ethics, there’s nothing left of Buddhism. It’s over.

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On criticizing fellow Buddhists

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

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

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

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

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How not to argue about Buddhism

The most common unproductive way to disagree is to attack your opponent, rather than what they have to say. (This is called “arguing ad hominem”—Latin for “against the person.”)

Ad hominem rarely adds to understanding—but it can be effective at silencing opposition.

Here are some specifically Buddhist forms of ad hominem I’ve encountered:

“You are being aggressive.” In other words, you won’t shut up when I tell you that you are wrong. “Aggression” is the worst Buddhist sin, so if I can make that stick, nice Buddhists will ignore whatever you have to say. (This also trades on the wrong idea that it is inherently hostile to insist that different Buddhisms are different.)

“Obviously, you don’t practice meditation much.” If you did, you would agree with me. Because meditation leads to the Truth, and I have the Truth.

“This is a bunch of academic/intellectual posturing.” I find what you are saying hard to understand. I don’t actually know much about Buddhism, but I’m totally sure I’m right. Rather than learning more—perhaps even from you—I will try to make you look irrelevant and out-of-touch.

“You have no right to say that.” As you know, we live in a totalitarian state in which The Buddhist Authorities determine who is allowed to say what.

“That’s not compatible with our Western values.” Naturally, all good Westerners have the same values, namely mine.

“That’s just a traditional view.” (The usual way for modernists to dismiss traditionalists.) As of last week, we’ve got everything figured out, so anything that contradicts our current belief is obsolete and should be forgotten.

“Your Buddhism is inauthentic.” (The usual way for traditionalists to dismiss modernists. What does “authentic” mean? In practice, nothing more than “my system, not yours.”)

“Yours is even worse.” You don’t believe that my meditation can make me One with The Entire Universe? Well, I don’t believe in your Tibetans’ flying lamas, either.

What other unhelpful Buddhist argument styles have you encountered?

Constructive religious disagreement

“You should not argue about religion”—much less criticize anyone else’s. That’s taboo. Everyone knows it’s not nice.

Genuine religious tolerance, however, begins with understanding. Understanding other people’s religions means understanding how they are different.

Respectful argument, including criticism, is the best way we have to get clear about religious differences.

Of course, religious arguments can erupt into hellish holy wars, and that’s why we have the taboo. But “let’s all get along” does not always have to mean “let’s not talk about it.”

A constructive religious argument won’t convert opponents, and won’t result in agreement, and doesn’t try. Instead, it allows both sides to understand their own systems better.

Even better, constructive debate allows on-lookers to better understand their own religious values and needs and capabilities. That is critical to finding a religion that is a good personal fit—one whose goals you want to pursue, whose path you enjoy, and whose prerequisites are in reach.

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