The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Summary

We may be at a momentous turn in Buddhist history.

I wrote this in 2011. This page, and all the following ones in this section, are somewhat obsolete, because the Consensus did crumble. My analysis may still be helpful in understanding “mainstream pop Buddhism”: where it came from, what motivated its creation, and how it differs from more serious forms of Buddhism.

Since the early 1990s, “Buddhism” in the West has been defined in a narrow, peculiar way.

Narrow: Consensus Western Buddhism has actively suppressed competing alternatives. This was a deliberate policy, and its success was a striking political accomplishment on the part of the creators of the forced consensus.

Peculiar: it is almost unrecognizably different from traditional Buddhism in Asia. (Its relationship with Asian Buddhism is complicated; I will sketch some of its history, which helps explain its present, and suggests future directions.)

In this blog series, I suggest that Consensus Western Buddhism has been bad for two reasons:

Doesn’t work for most people: it is based on a worldview and values that appeal only to a particular social group. Roughly, the “green” market segment of the Western middle-to-upper-middle class (“Bobos,” “LOHAS”), mainly from the Baby Boom generation.

Suppressed alternatives: the manufactured consensus has marginalized other Buddhist approaches that could have been useful to a broader range of people. The main problem with the consensus is its hegemonic rule.

Fortunately, it appears that the consensus is starting to break down.

“What next?” seems the critical question now. There are two parts to this: how will the Consensus react, and how can those of us outside it be helpful?

The natural reaction of a hegemonic consensus, when it perceives that it is losing its grip on its boundaries, is to try to preserve itself via force. It would be nice to think that Buddhists would not do this. The impermanence of the self is supposedly central to Buddhism—let it go! Buddhist history is not encouraging on this point, unfortunately. Buddhist establishments have frequently suppressed dissent with force.

Still, I am hopeful that the Western Buddhist establishment will recognize the irony, and will be willing to let go their grip. But only if they see a workable alternative future.

For those of us outside the Consensus, its new weakness is an opportunity to promote our own alternative agendas. And, frankly, we may want to actively encourage its collapse.

But we have a bigger responsibility: not only to our particular outside-consensus lineages, but also to ensuring the survival of Buddhism period. That means developing a broad view of what Buddhism now is, how it got that way, and they ways it can work over the next few decades.

The creators and enforcers of the Western Buddhist Consensus are trapped inside their own narrow worldview, and cannot see out. Some of them now realize that, and they are actively groping in the dark for the ways out of their cell. Suggestions shouted from outside may help.