What the Buddha REALLY said

We don’t know—and we have no way to find out.

Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon

In the 1980s, I practiced Wicca. Wicca is the original, pre-Christian, goddess-centered nature religion of Europe. Despite centuries of persecution and the burning of millions of Wiccans as “witches,” it survived underground to modern times. When the British Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951,1 courageous Wiccans began, cautiously, to practice their religion in public.

Well… that’s all hogwash, of course. It was obvious to skeptical Wiccans in the 1980s that our religion was an invented tradition, devised sometime in the twentieth century. It has only the vaguest of connections with pre-Christian European paganism. What we didn’t know, and had no way to find out, is whodunnit, and how, where, why, or quite when. Wicca’s inventors justified the religion as “ancient wisdom,” and they covered their tracks thoroughly. Their fabricated history was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of Wiccans. The inventors of other Neopaganisms adapted the Wiccan “unbroken secret tradition” mythology to their own systems. But as far as we skeptics were concerned, Wicca was a wonderful religion, regardless of where it came from.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, published in 1999, was a breakthrough. Ronald Hutton, a serious non-Pagan historian, made key discoveries about Wicca’s twentieth century invention, and found suggestive evidence for broader hypotheses. His treatment was sympathetic and respectful—but facts are facts.

Not surprisingly, Hutton’s work was vitriolically rejected by many practicing Neopagans. Somehow, ancientness is proof of rightness for many people. I seem to lack the brain circuits for this. I can see no reason a 75-year-old religion is, on that account, any less valid than a millennia-old one. (Was Buddhism bogus when the Buddha taught it?) On the other hand, understanding how a religion was invented, and successively re-invented, helps understand how it functions now. Some aspects of Wicca that made sense in the 1940s make no sense now.

Despite Hutton’s discoveries, and further historical research, there is much that is still not known about how Wicca came about. Some key questions probably can never be answered.

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Consensus Buddhism: what’s left

When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism, four years ago, I pointed to signs that it was in crisis and on its way out. Now, its failed attempt to mount a coherent political response to secular mindfulness shows it’s over. Of course, the teachers are still teaching and the centers are still open; but as a cultural force, it’s spent.

This means specifically that it is no longer capable of suppressing modern Tantric Buddhism—one of my main motivations for writing about it. (There’s many other obstacles to that—but Consensus hostility had been the most daunting, and that’s no longer significant.)

So I’m probably done writing about Consensus Buddhism. There’s some loose ends, though.

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Diversity, generalization, and authenticity

Buddhist tantra is extraordinarily diverse. Its 1400-year history, spanning most of Asia, includes many radically different, contradictory approaches. There is probably nothing they all have in common. It is impossible to generalize about tantra. Anything you might say will turn out to have an exception somewhere, or somewhen.

In my overview, I will often write “tantra is X,” or “tantra says Y,” or “tantric practice does Z.” As generalizations, these will always be false.

What I mean is: “It seems to me that tantra can be X, say Y, or do Z—and I think that’s a good thing. That is the approach to tantra I favor.”

I will often also explain tantra by contrasting it with other forms of Buddhism. Then I will say “tantra is not X”; and what I mean is “tantra doesn’t have to be X, and X is not part of the approach I favor.”

To write the long versions of these out, each time, would become cumbersome. So, I’ll substitute the simpler versions. But, please bear in mind that these are shorthand.

This is risky. If you are not familiar with other presentations of Buddhist tantra, you may get a seriously skewed, narrow perspective. If you find what I have to say interesting, you certainly should read other authors to get a broader view.

If you do already know something about tantra, it may seem that I make absurd, sweeping statements, probably based on ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps you can give me the benefit of the doubt by mentally reattaching the qualifiers: “it seems possible to me that tantra could…”

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Buddhist Geeks podcast II, and coming attractions

The second half of my Buddhist Geeks interview is now up on the web.

This covers the recent history of the Consensus, and the future. Among other things, I talk about the possibility for new forms of Buddhist Tantra.

I’m really happy with the way the podcast came out. I sound more articulate than I actually am! Vince must have applied some advanced digital magic.

If you take a look at my Twitter stream (in the right column of this blog, or here), you’ll see that recently I’ve been tweeting mainly about Buddhist Tantra. I’m hoping to write here soon a long series of posts about the possibilities for reinventing Buddhist Tantra. The tweets are a preview—summaries of upcoming posts, in slogan form.

First, though, a couple of posts analyzing Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. That’s a manifesto for Consensus Buddhism, by one of its leaders.

I hoped to post that analysis before the Geeks podcast went up, but haven’t yet had time to finish it. One Dharma is important because, after going on about the Consensus for months, this will be the first time I engage with it directly and concretely, rather than talking about it in the abstract.

After that, I’m planning to write about the future of Tantra. This actually will break the flow of my analysis of the Consensus. Logically, it would be better to continue my historical approach. I would write about the hippies’ encounter with Asian modernist Buddhism in the 1960s and 70s; the innovative creation of Western Buddhism in the 80s; the formation of the political Consensus in 1993 at the Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference (with an analysis of the Statement it released, mentioned in this podcast); the suppression of alternative Western Buddhisms in the 1990s and 2000s; signs that the Consensus is now opening up (or breaking down); and only then the possibilities for the future!

But maybe all that stuff is awfully dry; and anyway it’s over. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford said. I did a poll on Twitter, and 100% of respondents said they’d rather hear about the future than the past. So—that is what I will write next!