Comments on “The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview”

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nathan 2011-06-07

“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.””

You know, with Nella Lou’s essay and your writing here, I’m finding myself contemplating this stuff again on a larger level. Goes in waves for me.

I currently am the board president of a Zen sangha in the Midwest, and am also amongst the Gen X practitioner crowd, for whatever that’s worth. My experience as part of the leadership here is that for the most part, each sangha is on it’s own. We had a teacher scandal several years back. Got help from some teachers of other sanghas, but the lion’s share of debate, discussion, policing, and moralizing was internal. It was a much smaller version of what happened with Trungpa, Baker, Shimano, Genpo, Maezumi, etc.

My point in mentioning this is that I don’t think there’s ever been a strong collective effort to do much of anything in Western Buddhism. We don’t have a large-scale ethics body to appeal to when teachers abuse power. We don’t make collective public statements about anything, political, social, or otherwise. In fact the “we” has always - in my view anyway - been largely about individual groups that are loosely associated with each other, partly in religious name only, and partly through some form of teacher lineage.

Now, I totally agree with the points Nella Lou made about participant demographics and the heavy focus on psychology and personal transformation that you, her, and others rightly critique. I have also offered critiques along these lines on my blog. And I do think believe that some of what you see in the “Big Three” Buddhist publications is an indication of the trends in Western convert Buddhist circles. However, when it comes down to actual leadership, consensus creation, enforcement of that consensus, etc. - there’s not much there. It seems more to be following the pattern of capitalist, consumer influence - where those with the bucks and organizational backing sell their messages to a wider audience as “the truth” of the practice.

The internet, amongst other things, is breaking down even that influence though to some degree. And perhaps what we are witnessing is less about a certain form of leadership and control, and more about a disintegration of control by a select few over the means of mass production and dissemination of teachings, methods, and understands of Buddhist practice.

Noah 2011-06-07

“Monism is alien to Indian Buddhism. It did start to crop up in Chinese Buddhism quite early. However, its main source is German Romantic Idealist philosophy. Fortunately, that philosophy was thoroughly debunked and rejected in the early 1900s in the West. Unfortunately, it was preserved in Asia, when Buddhists there mixed it into their theology, under pressure from Christian missionaries and authoritarian Asian states.”

”…under pressure from Christian missionaries and authoritarian Asian states…”


I remember when I first saw The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson, I found it so hilarious that the three brothers had to go find their mother in a Catholic convent in the Himalayas (if I remember that correctly), but I think they might have actually filmed on location.

Either way…history – philosophical, religious, or just in general, I suppose – is so CONVOLUTED. Thank you for helping to sort some of it out. We have to know what we’re dealing with if we’re going to deal well.

I’ll be following your future posts closely.
Thank you so much.

David Chapman 2011-06-09

Nathan, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ve spent a day reflecting on it, and that has fed into my most recent post.

I agree that the Western Buddhist establishment has not created effective governance for itself. The ideology of Western Buddhism is supposedly egalitarian, anti-hierarchical, and “democratic.” That means that its elite is unable to use authority of position (“I’m the Supreme Poobah of the American Sangha, so you have to do what I say”) to get things done.

But I think it wields a lot of power in a different way. It exerts power by defining the terms of acceptable discourse. That is, it defines an Overton window, partly through controlling the major Buddhist media. This is a kind of “soft power”, but it is still highly influential, and until recently it has been effective at suppressing alternatives.

This is, in a way, the worst of both worlds. The Western Buddhist mainstream has not had the institutional power to prevent bad behavior by its own members; but it has had, and used, rhetorical power to suppress dissent.

I agree that this control is disintegrating, and that the internet has been part of the reason. My theory is that the Maha Teachers’ Council is their attempt to understand this.

David Chapman 2011-06-09

Hi Noah,

Thanks for the encouragement! It’s going to take me some time to get to that stuff; McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism is my major source, and a great book; you could take a look at it if you want to read more immediately.

nathan 2011-06-10

“The Western Buddhist mainstream has not had the institutional power to prevent bad behavior by its own members; but it has had, and used, rhetorical power to suppress dissent.”

I totally agree with this statement. And have seen it in play both online, and also a little bit in my own sangha even.

jonckher 2011-09-22

Great post and very thought provoking. I have enjoyed reading your posts. I agree with your conclusion as well. I wonder if you have kept up with what is happening in therapy? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an especially interesting example and to my mind offers a very interesting and useful way of integrating values into what is essentially a mindfulness based approach. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Granted, I haven’t had much exposure to him/it as yet, but would you say Ethan Nichtern and the ID Project are part of the Consensus or outside it?

David Chapman 2011-12-23

@ jonckher — sorry to be months late replying, I somehow missed your comment. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about ACT. I’ve just now skimmed the Wikipedia entry. Some good-sounding stuff there.

@ Frank Martin — I don’t know enough about the ID Project to have an opinion. It looks intriguing, particularly for its emphasis on art, and I liked what Ethan had to say at last summer’s Buddhist Geeks conference. On the other hand, I find some of the language on the web site irritatingly Consensus-ish. Anyway, the Consensus has a fuzzy margin, and it won’t be possible to classify every approach as either in or out.

dunrossinsf 2012-02-05


This looks like a remarkable series that I’m very much looking forward to reading!



misinformation everywhere 2012-11-23


David Chapman 2012-11-23

Hmm. How do you know?

There’s several parts to that. One is that we probably don’t actually know anything about what the “historical Buddha” taught. Western historians are unanimous that the Pali scriptures are unreliable as historical evidence. There is no agreement among Western historians about which, if any, of the scriptures are accurate.

Even if you think some or all of the Pali scriptures are accurate, what they say about vipassana is vague and contradictory. So, we have no way of knowing from scripture what “vipassana” meant in ancient times.

What we do know is that there are several quite different things that are called “vipassana” now. So, which one is the “true” vipassana that came from the “historical Buddha” (if there was such a person)?

Advocates of each of the different modern vipassanas all say that theirs is the original, true one (and the others are bogus). How do you decide which is right?

nines 2013-08-02

Oh, my.... I love that you see into some of the worst aspects of “Western Buddhism”, but, oh, sheesh, this is way too ornate. The vehicles are three, each one from the Buddha according to different modes of understanding; all aimed at the same realization.

Some need to start by really learning to cut off the stream of “self” and they should use Hinayana. Some need to start by really learning to cope in a crowd and they should use Mahayana. Some need emphasis on neither of these and go straight for the point of it all… Ekayana. Each of these vehicles, the reasoning, was designed to get one to the exact same place. There is no value system placed on which vehicle gets you there. Whatever. Motorcycle, bus, Ferrari… on foot… mox nix. One destination. Any approach is equal to all the others.

There is no “Western Buddhism”! That’s idiotic! It’s just Buddhism. Not. Even. A. Religion. You do the practices, follow the proscriptions and prescriptions in order to prepare your mind for realization. If you have done it right, and been diligent and open, you ought to get where the vehicle was designed to take you.

After that, there is no more Buddhism. That’s it. The rest is you dropping off [shedding] the habits of a lifetime, deepening your enlightenment.

Surely you have heard the injunction that all is samsara, and the moment you get the destination of a Buddhist vehicle, Buddhism itself is as samsaric as the rest.

What do you think was meant by that?

There’s nothing after “stream entry” but becoming able to reach that at will.

All these capitalists wringing their hands about “Western Buddhism”. Charlatans entertaining dull-witted seekers! Buddhism does not have to stick to rigid forms, but there are certain mental postures pretty much mandatory. Whatever way you get to those is jake. Try to get a copy of Idries Shah’s Learning How to Learn. I think it will help you greatly, and let you start getting somewhere with your take on the situation.

paarsurrey 2014-01-23

@ David Chapman
” It does show that these methods are not set in stone, straight from the Buddha’s mouth. “

Do we have something that we could say about it is straight from the Buddha’s mouth. Please


David Chapman 2014-01-23

Hi, I’m not entirely sure I understand your question. But… Buddhists don’t agree about which scriptures, if any, are accurate reports of the Buddha’s teaching. Neither do Western historians.

My personal best guess is that the Buddha is an entirely fictional character, so none of the scriptures can be accurate reports.

paarsurrey 2014-01-24

@ David Chapman
I don’t get you; if as you say Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhārtha Gautama ” is an entirely fictional character”; then who made the prophecy of coming of Maitreya and on what source/basis?

David Chapman 2014-01-24
who made the prophecy of coming of Maitreya and on what source/basis?

I’ve no idea. Who cares? Maitreya is a minor bit of mythology that is not central in any form of Buddhism, so far as I know.

The Wikipedia has a summary of theories about where he came from; Zoroastrianism seems to be the best guess.

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