Power

 

Power is a main goal of Buddhist tantra. That’s unique and valuable among Buddhisms.

Power comes from skillful use of energy—personal energy, and also the energy of situations and other people. (See my page on “unclogging energy” for more.)

Tantra develops confidence, mastery, and charisma. These are keys to power.

The two faces of power

Power is awkward. Most people—certainly most Western Buddhists—have strong, mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, power is the ability to get things done. Without power, it is impossible to accomplish anything. Power makes it possible to benefit others, and to change the world for the better. The bodhisattva vows are goody-goody weaksauce without the power of tantra. Benevolence has little value without the ability to act.

On the other hand, power corrupts. Power is, at best, morally neutral. It can be used for evil as easily as for good. Throughout history, power elites have brutally oppressed and exploited the majority. “Mastery” includes the powers of domination and coercion.

Power is inherently, inescapably political. Power inevitably raises strong emotions, both desire and hate.

Power is not nice. Power is not polite. Power is not a comfortable subject to discuss.

Power is a central issue for Consensus Buddhism, and for Tibetan Buddhism.

Continue reading “Power”

What do you want Buddhism for?

Buddhist banquet

I have a sense that, in American Buddhism, this question may be coming to a crisis point.

Traditionally, what most people wanted from Buddhism—in practice—was good luck in this life, and better circumstances in their next life.

The modern Buddhism of the 1870s to 1970s rejected those answers as supernatural, and therefore unbelievable. So it went back to the scriptures to renew an old theoretical answer: “enlightenment.”

Unfortunately, the scriptural explanations of enlightenment are mostly also supernatural. So, modern Buddhism invented various replacement interpretations. Apparently they work for some people; but mostly they seem unsatisfactory. They may be implausible, unworkably vague, or unimpressive.

In my last post, I suggested that “enlightenment” is such a confused idea that we ought to drop it altogether. Several of my earlier posts have also argued that “enlightenment” is a counter-productive escape fantasy.

Many Western Buddhist leaders have recognized this, probably for decades. I’m not sure there’s been a full, open discussion about it, though. Can “enlightenment” be rescued? Or, if we abandon it, what is Buddhism good for? These questions are confusing and embarrassing, and might drive away the audience. So maybe there is a tacit agreement to avoid them.

Continue reading “What do you want Buddhism for?”

The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has changed the way I think about Buddhism more than any book I’ve read in years. I think it’s destined to be an influential classic.

It’s a history of how and why “Western Buddhism” came to be what it is. That casts new light on what “Western Buddhism” is, and raises new questions about whether that’s what we want.

My understanding of this book is the main basis for this blog series. (Of course, I use other sources too, and of course McMahan might disagree with everything I say.) This is not a general review. Instead, I will explain some parts of the book that are relevant to my own project.

Traditional Buddhism is very unlike Western Buddhism

Most Western Buddhists don’t realize how different even the most traditional and “authentic” forms found in the West are from traditional Asian Buddhism. Once this is understood, questions arise: where did modern Buddhism come from? Why? What is it good for? Is it legitimate? What are the implications of its differences from tradition?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism starts with a series of four portraits of typical Buddhists in Asia and in the West. It explains their understanding of Buddhist theory and practice. These portraits are devastatingly accurate; and very funny, because of the total disconnect between the traditional Asian and Western Buddhists. If you have not spent time in Asia, with traditional Buddhists, this chapter may come as a shock; and is certainly worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book.

Briefly: Westerners take for granted that meditation is a main Buddhist practice, and that reading and understanding Buddhist texts is another. Traditionally, in Asia, almost no one ever meditated, and almost no one ever read religious texts with the intention of figuring out what they meant. This was true even in monasteries, never mind lay communities. In traditional Asia, virtually all Buddhist practice is aimed either at accumulating merit in order to have a better next life; or at influencing assorted gods and demons, whose actions have practical consequences for one’s health and wealth.

Much of “Western” Buddhism was developed in Asia by Asians

It is startling how much of “Western” Buddhism was invented in Asia, before 1950—before there was much Western interest in Buddhism. McMahan suggests, therefore, that we talk about “Buddhist modernism” rather than “Western Buddhism.”

On a later blog page, I will summarize some of this history, concentrating on modernist Theravada and Zen, and drawing on the historical research of Gil Fronsdal and Brooke Schedneck as well as David McMahan.

Modernist Buddhism hybridizes tradition with Western ideologies

McMahan explores in detail the way Buddhism has been altered to incorporate three major Western ideologies:

McMahan treats two other Western systems in less depth:

  • Psychology and psychotherapy
  • Political ideals: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, social justice

What I found most startling and useful in the book was seeing how deeply these five ideologies have been “read back” into Buddhism, so that they are mostly overlooked, and taken to be traditional Asian products.

Later in this series, I will go into more detail about the influences of each of these Western ideologies on Buddhist modernism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas

Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?

The five Western ideologies are also not altogether alien to Buddhism. They do resonate with some aspects of Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist modernism, those resonating aspects are highlighted, while parts of Buddhism that contradict Western ideas are suppressed. Quoting McMahan:

This “taking up” of selected elements of a tradition in the context of another tradition is how religions develop, adapt, change, and come to occupy different ideological niches from the ones they evolved in. The taking up and development of Buddhism in the context of [Western ideologies] has created a new Buddhism, a hybrid that is adapted to all [of them] and is able to both complement and criticize them. (p. 116)

Buddhist modernism is attractively familiar

Buddhist modernism has been successful because it makes sense to Westerners.

That’s not surprising: much of it is our own culture, repackaged and passed back to us.

Familiar ideas about individual access to ultimate truth (a core theme of Protestantism), social justice, and emotional health are dressed up with Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan words, and supported with highly selective quotations from Buddhist scripture. That makes them intriguingly exotic, yet comfortably unthreatening.

The West has its own powerful critiques of each modern ideology

The ideologies that were mixed into Buddhist modernism are each problematic. There are powerful Western critiques of each of these five Western ideas.

When these ideologies are disguised as “timeless Eastern wisdom,” we may accept them uncritically. Repackaging questionable Western theories as Buddhism might get them past filters when they shouldn’t.

New forms of Buddhism address new problems

It’s useful to think of each new form of Buddhism as trying to solve particular problems that crop up in a particular place and time.

Much of Buddhist modernism developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Asia, to solve major Asian political problems. Western military power threatened colonial domination, and the influx of Protestant Christian missionaries threatened to replace Asian cultures. Buddhist modernism was created largely to help fight off these threats.

That motivation is irrelevant to us now. It’s worth asking how Buddhism has been shaped by anti-colonialsm, and whether a religion created with that agenda is still a good fit.

More recently, Buddhism in the West has developed in response to other problems. One is the widespread loss of faith in Christianity, potentially leading to the “disenchantment of the world,” a sense of meaninglessness, and nihilist despair and rage. Another was a series of political and social crises, addressed by the “engaged Buddhist” movement.

It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)

It is worth asking whether Buddhism is an effective way of addressing current political and social problems. (I’m not sure, but I doubt it.)

It is worth asking, what other problems might Buddhism help with now?

What kind of Buddhism do you want?

I think that Buddhist modernism is on the whole a good thing. But I can’t swallow it whole.

For each of the five Western ideologies that Buddhism has incorporated, I will point out ways I find them problematic, in Western terms.

I will also sketch some extremely tentative ideas about how Buddhism may develop in the world we live in now. It’s a world that has some new spiritual problems, emerging in the past couple decades, which we’re only beginning to recognize. I’ll point out some of those, and suggest ways Buddhism might be relevant.

“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.