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.

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Unclogging Consensus Buddhism

Audience and innovation

Reinventing tantra” has a mixed audience, which poses a challenge: how much knowledge should I assume; how much interest; what will be exciting, and what off-putting?

I’ve written most pages in two pieces. First, I explain an aspect of Buddhist tantra as simply as I can; and then there’s a commentary, usually headed “Relating this to tradition”. The commentary is for readers who want to geek out on details, or who know Buddhism well but can’t quite figure out where I’m coming from.

The simple explanations have two functions. Obviously, if you are curious about tantra, but not yet very knowledgeable, they may provide a basic understanding, and possibly inspire you to learn more.

Less obviously, the explanations re-present tantra in a particular style. Their content is not deliberately innovative; I’m just trying to write clearly. Inevitably, though, I highlight particular features of tradition that I find valuable, and ignore features that seem irrelevant in 2012.

My overall purpose in writing is to intervene in the culture of modern Buddhism. To succeed, these ideas need to reach Buddhist leaders who are open to innovation.

My last page—“Unclogging”—is more complex and obscure than most. That is because it was meant primarily for teachers of tantra, or for those who may one day teach tantra. Implicitly, it is a suggestion about how to innovate—although it offers no specific innovations itself.

Since that was already long and difficult, I decided to split the commentary off onto two additional pages; this is the first.

On this page, I’ll explain what I was trying to do in “Unclogging,” and why it’s addressed particularly to teachers. On the next page, I’ll do the “relating to tradition” thing.

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Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

A conversation has begun about what post-Consensus Buddhisms could be. I will join in by suggesting renewed Buddhist Tantra as a possibility. Tantra aims in a direction many people want to go—quite a different direction from mainstream Buddhism. So its goal is inspiring; and its path can be exhilarating.

That might seem unlikely. “Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism incredibly conservative? What about all those gods and demons and miracles and Medieval superstitions? And prostrating to lamas, and rituals and robes and thrones and crowns? And hours and hours of chanting gibberish in Tibetan? This is exactly the stuff we want to leave behind—hardly the way forward for Western Buddhism!”

Mostly, yes, vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist Tantra that is available; and I agree that it’s culture-bound and anachronistic.

Yet I think new Tantric Buddhisms could be particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.

This page previews upcoming posts that will sketch possibilities that might look entirely unlike what has come before.

I say “Buddhisms,” plural, because I don’t want the new, better alternative to Consensus Buddhism. What I want is space for many alternatives to develop. Some may sprout from Tantra; others from other roots.

I say “sketching possibilities” because I do not have a worked-out alternative to offer. I can only wave toward directions that look promising. I hope others will explore further, and that new forms may emerge collaboratively.

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“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.