The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview

This page is an outline of my series on the “crumbling Western Buddhist consensus.”

[I wrote this outline in 2011. I didn’t complete the series, and it somewhat diverged from the original plan as I went along. This version is still reasonably accurate, and toward the end it summarizes parts I didn’t finish, but which may still be of interest.]


Several pages introduce the theme of the series. I wrote these in a rush, as I explain in a preface, and they are not as worked-out as later posts.

I began with a summary, which is now out of date and needs revision, but may still be useful.

Brad Warner vs. the Maha Teachers

I started to post this series when news broke of the 2011 Garrison Institute Maha Teachers Conference. This was the first major get-together of the “Consensus” Western Buddhist establishment in ten years. I think this was important because it suggests that the “Consensus” recognizes that something is wrong with its approach.

I had been planning the series for a couple of years, but it wasn’t really ready to go yet. However, the Maha Conference prompted me to go ahead anyway.

“Nice” Buddhism

This page explains some of what “Consensus Western Buddhism” is; its key ideas, values, and worldview.

It also begins to explain why the consensus is in crisis.

Traditional and modern Buddhism: an oppressive duopoly

Consensus Western Buddhism is a “modernist” movement. So, it defines itself partly with reference to and against Buddhist traditionalism; and partly as aligned with other modernist movements.

Buddhism (in Asia as well as in the West) is now polarized into modernist and traditional versions. I suggest that neither of these is workable. Nor is some compromise or Middle Way between them the right answer.

Key texts

These have shaped my understanding of the current crisis in Western Buddhism:

I have a full page on The Making of Modern Buddhism, the most important influence on this series.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Buddhism sees itself as extremely inclusive and open to everyone. It’s blind to the reasons it actually excludes most people other than politically-correct white folks from the Baby Boom generation.

Its non-appeal to younger generations is the major sign of crisis.

The modernization of Buddhism in Asia: 1850-1950

I was astonished to discover that much of what we think of as “Western” Buddhism was created in Asia, more than a hundred years ago, under Western influence. This is not widely understood. Many things we think of as “traditional Buddhism” are authentically Asian, but were invented only recently. Knowing that they are not “timeless Eastern wisdom” makes it easier to ask whether we want them.

Buddhism vs. colonialism

Modern Buddhism was forged in Asia, in the late 1800s, as an ideological weapon against Western colonial aggression. It was surprisingly successful. But, we ought to ask whether a system developed for that purpose is ideal for our current needs.

Protestant Buddhism

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a “Protestant Buddhism” reform movement radically reshaped the religion. Based on core concepts from Protestant Christianity, this is the Buddhism we have today.

Mostly, I think these reforms were a good thing, but I’ll suggest that some Protestant Buddhist themes we take for granted may actually be unhelpful for our time.

Problems with scripture

Giving ultimate religious authority to scripture, rather than tradition, was one of the key Protestant Christian reforms. Protestant Buddhism has done the same. In both cases, this causes problems because scripture requires interpretation.

A new World Religion

A hundred years ago, it was politically imperative to remake Buddhism to conform to a particular European concept of what a “World Religion” was supposed to look like. A World Religion needed to be just like Christianity, only more modern (according to the 1900 standard of “modern.”) This concept is obsolete, but it has left deep marks on the Buddhism we have now. Some may now be unhelpful.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

This post describes the modernization of Zen under political, religious, and military pressure from the West.

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Mongkut, the King of Siam, radically reformed Theravada Buddhism to conform to Western ideas. His creation is the single largest contribution to contemporary Western Buddhism.

Modern meditation

The meditation techniques that are most widely practiced now were invented less than a hundred years ago, in Asia, under Western influence. Most traditional meditation techniques have been ignored or rejected because they didn’t conform to Western values.

I am not a traditionalist, and I don’t believe “older is better.” However, I think we’ve lost some valuable practices because they were unacceptable to Protestant missionaries or to 1970s hippies.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Modern vipassana, and mindfulness meditation, were invented recently in Thailand and Burma. That doesn’t make them “inauthentic,” in my view. It does show that these methods are not set in stone, straight from the Buddha’s mouth. So there is room for continued innovation, and also for recovery of earlier practices that might again be valuable.

The essence of all religions?

Many Western Buddhists take for granted a particular “mystical” understanding of what meditation does and how. I think this understanding is wrong. Also, although it may be traditional for some Buddhisms, it is certainly not at all the mainstream traditional Buddhism view. So it is at least open to question.

What got left out of “meditation”?

This post describes some of the many practices that modern Buddhism has abandoned, and why. I think the reasons are often not good ones, and we’ve lost much of value. Later posts suggest ways those practices can be recovered.

Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism

I discuss corpse practice, a particularly unacceptable traditional meditation method, and explain why it is valuable.

Effing the ineffable

The mystical (mis)interpretation of meditation is defended with claims that enlightenment experiences are ineffable. This post points out that ineffability cannot justify big metaphysical ideas. Those have to stand on their own two feet, not rely on vague pronouncements about the meaning of dramatic meditation experiences.

Who’s got it?

Metaphysical claims about meditation and enlightenment are often justified by pointing at what supposedly-enlightened people say. Unfortunately, they say quite different things. Also unfortunately, we have not good way of telling who is enlightened.

The quest for the True Self

Modern Buddhism often explains meditation as a method for examining internal experience to see through the false self (or ego), to find the True Self. I suggest that this is a mistake—not least because there is no True Self.

The quest for The Absolute

The monist (mis)interpretation of meditation sees enlightenment as unification with The Absolute, which is the Ultimate Truth, the undifferentiated One, the source of all goodness, and The Entire Universe. I suggest that there is no such thing. It’s actually the Christian God in disguise, and God is undead.

Monist meditation causes the problem it seeks to treat

The monist All-Is-One approach tries to connect a non-existent True Self with a non-existent Absolute. Both of these are vague abstractions. Meditating this way actively hinders the creation of concrete connections with real-world specifics.

So what is meditation, then?

Some Western Buddhists may be unable to conceive of any other explanation for meditation and enlightenment. In fact, traditional Buddhisms offer several. Here I sketch two. Neither is necessarily the right one, but this shows that there are non-monist alternatives.


Most traditional Buddhist practice is ritual. Ritual is unacceptable to modernism, and Western Buddhism mostly abandoned it. In this section, I explain the valuable functions of ritual; the reasons we don’t like it; and ways of overcoming those reasons. I suggest that we could reinvent Buddhist ritual in ways suitable for our time.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Renunciation, transformation, and Tantra

Western Buddhism is based mainly on modernized Theravada, whose fundamental principle is the renunciation of desire. Unfortunately, Westerners have zero interest in renunciation, so this doesn’t work well.

What Western Buddhists want is personal transformation. That’s an entirely different thing, requiring entirely different methods. Consensus Buddhism has incorporated non-Buddhist transformative methods, from psychotherapy and the New Age.

As it happens, there is a branch of Buddhism that aims at transformation, through enjoyment, namely Tantra (Vajrayana). It was designed specifically for lay people, who have no interest in giving up sensory pleasure. I suggest that Tantric Buddhism would be a better starting point for Western Buddhism. There are serious obstacles to that, but I hope they can be overcome.

Unfortunately, Tantra is not nice. That means it has been actively suppressed by the Consensus.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Buddhist Perennialism: enforced consensus

Perennialism” is the claim that all religions are essentially the same.

Buddhist Perennialism is the claim that all Buddhist traditions have a shared essence, and that core is what is really important. Whatever is not shared must be culturally-specific, is irrelevant to the West, and should be abandoned.

Buddhist Perennialism is one of the major strategies the Consensus establishment has used to suppress alternatives. It implies that anything outside the Consensus is conservative traditionalism, and any opposition to the Consensus is a nasty, narrow, sectarian attack on the sacred shared Buddhist core.

Perennialism also suggests that Buddhism has essentially the same message as other religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism. This is used as a strategy to white-wash importing dubious Christian and Hindu values and concepts into Buddhism.

Problems with priests

This section discusses the difficulties Western Buddhism has had with the teacher/student relationship. I look at Protestant Christianity as a model.

What Buddhist ethics?

Consensus Buddhism equals mindfulness meditation plus ethics. Here I express skepticism that Buddhism has anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.

Consensus Buddhism: 1960—2005

This section traces the history of “Consensus” Buddhism—the modern Western mainstream. Understanding how it became what it is helps understand its limitations, and where we might go next.

If I ever get out of here

Consensus Buddhism was created by self-described hippies. This post looks at their early history, in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Saving the world

I see all forms of Buddhism as solutions to social and cultural problems that arise at particular times. This post looks at the problems experienced by the Baby Boom creators of Consensus Buddhism, and explains how they tried to solve them.

Trungpa Rinpoche & Nice Buddhism

One of the main motivations for the creation of the Consensus was to avoid any repeat of the Chögyam Trungpa debacle.  Trungpa Rinpoche was a “controversial” Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who did some things he probably shouldn’t have. His appointed successor did worse things.

Apart from the actual harm done, this was seen as disastrous negative publicity for Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism). Part of the founding self-definition of the Consensus is we are nothing like Trungpa, and we’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Especially, we are going to ensure that everybody who’s allowed to teach Buddhism is extremely nice.

Unfortunately, “niceness” is incompatible with most of Buddhism. That meant that most of Buddhism was collateral damage when the establishment suppressed any possible manifestations of Trungpa-like-ness.

The Dharmasala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences

The current Western Buddhist establishment seems to have been pulled together as a political bloc at the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference.

Its main theme was “Let’s stomp on anyone who might do anything alarming.”

Heartening signs of impending collapse

Here I collect various indications that the Consensus is breaking down, mainly not because of attack from outside, but due to its own internal contradictions.

Several of the leaders of the establishment seem to have figured out that Consensus Western Buddhism doesn’t work even for them. And it’s glaringly obvious that it isn’t working for the post-Boomer generations.

Buddhism after systems

Here I expand on the argument I’ve made earlier that the biggest threat to Buddhism is the contemporary wholesale rejection of all systems, and the “shattering” of ideologies by consumer culture.

If Buddhism is to survive, it may have to adapt to a world in which no one “belongs to” any religion; in which we all assemble fluid identities out of disparate fragments of culture.

That is a world in which no “mainstream” or “consensus” is possible. “Buddhism” will disintegrate: not just into its many schools and lineages, but into its innumerable diverse practices, theories, and ways of talking.

This may be unfortunate, but I think it’s inevitable. Trying to hold systems together is doomed. So the question is, what can we do to best help those who will inherit this fragmentation?