“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud

“Buddhist ethics” is neither Buddhist nor ethics.

“Buddhist ethics” is a fraud: a fabrication created to deceive, passed off as something valuable that it is not, for the benefit of its creators and promoters.

“Buddhist ethics” is actually a collection of self-aggrandizing strategies for gaining social status within the left side of the Western cultural divide.

“Buddhist ethics” actively obstructs Buddhists’ moral and personal development. It has also deliberately obscured—and sometimes forcefully suppressed—most of Buddhism.

“Buddhist ethics” is gravely ill and will probably die shortly. In fact, I hope to drive a stake through its heart now. Its demise will open the door to new possibilities for Western Buddhism.

Some might find these statements surprising; possibly even “controversial.” Perhaps not all readers will immediately agree. Over the next several posts, I’ll explain why they are accurate, and why they matter.

Continue reading ““Buddhist ethics” is a fraud”

Nice Buddhism & ethics: a reply

Barbara O’Brien, the official About.com Buddhist Guide, has written a reply to my post about “Nice Buddhism.” (Thanks, Barbara, for the commentary!) I couldn’t quite get my response into the about.com comment length limit, so I’m posting it here.

She said she didn’t recognize this “nice” “consensus Buddhism,” and suggested that I was only aware of Western Buddhists with superficial practice experience. I hesitate to name names—but “consensus Buddhism” is presented by, for example, the Insight Meditation Society teachers, Lama Surya Das, and Thich Nhat Hanh. None of them could be accused of having a superficial practice, I hope! However, their popular works do seem “nice” to me; and this is the Buddhism most Westerners are first exposed to.

In this blog series I’ll present a brief history of “nice Buddhism,” drawing on the work of David McMahan, Gil Fronsdal, and Brooke Schedneck. The short version is that, in Thailand, by the 1960s, traditional Buddhist ethics were already being mixed with Protestant Christian ethics, under pressure from colonial missionaries. That made it particularly easy for the founders of Western Consensus Buddhism to modernize it.

O’Brien especially objects to my statement that “traditional Buddhism doesn’t have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.” That may have been overly broad, but I think it is broadly defensible. [Note: I added the word “distinctively” after originally publishing this, to clarify a possible misinterpretation.]

Talking about “Buddhist ethics” can be misleading. There are many Buddhisms, and many different ethical approaches within them. I think that what most Western Buddhists think of a “Buddhist ethics” hasn’t got much to do with any traditional Asian Buddhist ethics, and much more to do with liberal Western Christian and humanist ethics.

There’s an outstanding essay by Jose Cabezon about Buddhists sexual ethics that explains this. He argues:

  1. What almost all Western Buddhists think they know about Buddhist sexual ethics is mistaken
  2. Among other things, traditional Buddhist sexual ethics involves detailed lists of right and wrong actions, which O’Brien (like most Western Buddhists) explicitly denies in her post
  3. As Buddhists, we ought to consider seriously what Buddhist texts actually do say about sexual ethics
  4. What they actually do say is absolutely wrong, and we should reject it.

This is not, I think, a problem only with Buddhist sexual ethics, but a broader one.

O’Brien objects to my blaming niceness on Baby Boomers. I don’t think I did that, exactly! However, lots of people have observed that Buddhism appeals more to the Boomer generation than to younger ones. Exactly why, and what to do about it, are not yet clear. (This appears to be a major topic of the current Maha Teachers Council I’ve been writing about.) I suggest that “Boomeritis” is part of the problem: the inability to recognize that some “nice” values (first common in that generation) are not universal.

“Nice” Buddhism

Consensus Western Buddhism is a religion of niceness.

Unfortunately, niceness does not define Buddhism, or have anything much to do with it. To give the impression that the Consensus is what Buddhism naturally should be, it has to suppress all alternatives (which are not about niceness).

Of course, the Consensus doesn’t describe itself as “nice.” Instead, it talks about peace, healing, sharing, caring, compassion, connection, concern, and ethics. Especially, it sells itself by implicitly claiming a monopoly on ethicalness. This is nonsense, for multiple reasons.

The hippies’ dilemma

The founders of the Consensus were ’60s hippies. The Consensus is based on the hippie ethos. In fact, it is a systematization of the hippie ethos—a conceptual framework for it.

The hippies rejected the ’50s system they grew up in, which was based on unquestioning respect for political and religious authority. But that left a vacuum, opening the door to a nihilistic void of dead-end drug use or mindless rage and rebellion.

What seemed to be needed was an alternative ethical framework; a positive vision which one could identify with and live by.

When things got ugly in the early ’70s, many hippies decamped for Asia, where the founders of the Consensus found Buddhism. Among other things, Buddhism seemed to offer an ethical system—one that seemed attractive, in some ways, at first.

So Consensus Buddhism consists mostly of ethics plus meditation. Meditation is hard, so for most Consensus Buddhists, ethics are probably the main draw.

Is this Buddhism, or Christianity?

Now the problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against.

So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with “nice” vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. Which is, roughly, “political correctness,” or the “green meme.”

This means Consensus Buddhism has more in common with progressive Christianity (Unitarian Universalism or Liberal Anglicanism) than it does with any form of Asian Buddhism. (Much of the ethical thinking that went into p.c. was done by liberal Christians. Socialism and psychotherapeutic ideology were other major sources.)

This similarity is at the level of fundamental principles and functions: the core engine, not the outer forms. Western Buddhism kept some traditional Buddhist mythology (in the same way liberal Christianity keeps some traditional mythology), but you aren’t expected to believe in it. It’s a bunch of “teaching stories,” not Truth.

Liberal Christians often do not believe in God, other than very abstractly maybe. They say that the important thing about Jesus is not his divinity, but his moral message.

Consensus Buddhists mostly don’t believe in Buddhas, either. The important thing is not enlightenment, but a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness.

We don’t need no stinkin’ system!

Consensus Buddhism is a framework, or container, to put ethics in. That’s something the hippies thought they needed, to replace the ’50s framework they rejected.

But younger generations mostly don’t want a framework. I, for example, share most (not quite all) of the values of political correctness. But I don’t feel any need to make an ideology out of it. I try to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and nothing more need be said. My ethics have almost nothing to do with my Buddhism.

I think this is why Consensus Buddhism is failing to reach the post-60s generations. (I have written about this on Approaching Aro, and on Meaningness, and will likely say more on this blog as well.)

Niceness sucks

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.

Exploiting ethical anxiety

There is a great hunger for ethical clarity—among young people as well as Boomers. Why?

Since 1960, half of Americans, and most Europeans, have abandoned traditional Christian ethics. We have entered an age of ethical ambiguity—and that is a good thing. Navigating ethical dilemmas without fixed rules is difficult, though.

Christianity deliberately promotes ethical anxiety. You are supposed to worry all the time about your own sinful nature, and the likelihood of eternal damnation. This is the religion’s main emotional hook.

Although practically no one really believes in damnation any more, the emotional undercurrent of ethical anxiety—”am I a good enough person?”—remains strong in our post-Christian culture. We have gotten rid of God but not Judgment. It’s just that the Judgement is self-judgement and social judgement, rather than Divine Judgement.

I think Consensus Buddhism appeals to, promotes, and exploits this anxiety. The subliminal message of much of its marketing is “if you belong to our religion, then you are allowed to feel you are ethical enough.”

I think ethical anxiety is entirely unnecessary and counter-productive. The question “am I good enough?” is self-centered and irrelevant. The valid ethical question is “what can I most usefully do in this situation?” Judgement is beside the point.

Buddhist membership as social signaling

Being seen as ethical is hugely valuable. We would rather have sex and do business with ethical people. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how ethical people are; unethical people are motivated to hide that. You can only know for sure once it is too late.

That means we rely on indirect clues. People display various ethics-related traits as signaling devices. Religious observance is one of the most important of these. In past centuries, “he’s a good Christian, he goes to church every week” would be a strong recommendation either as a business partner or as a husband. (Even though going to church probably had near-zero correlation with ethical behavior in reality.)

It seems to me that this is one of the most important functions of Western Buddhism nowadays. For perhaps a majority of Western Buddhists, “I am a Buddhist” means “I am a good person; I am aligned with an ethics of caring; you can rely on me to be emotional supportive.” (In some circles, this is an essential part of courtship rituals.) It does not necessarily mean that you know anything about Buddhism except that it is the religion of niceness, nor that you actually do anything Buddhist.

This “I am a Buddhist, therefore a good person” line is sanctimonious, smarmy, snooty, superior, self-important, and self-aggrandizing.

It is majorly off-putting to many who are serious about ethics, and drives them away from Buddhism.

While I share most of the values of Consensus Buddhists, I am repulsed by their relationship with those values, and their flaunting of that relationship.