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.

Implicitly, the Consensus answer is: Buddhist ethics make you a better person, and meditation promotes mental health and social functioning.

There doesn’t seem to be any difference between American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics, however. Is there any significant point on which they disagree? I haven’t found one. If there is none, then “Buddhism” boils down to psychotherapeutic meditation.

What is on the menu besides meditation?

“Mindfulness-based” therapies—roughly, Buddhist meditation without Buddhism—are great, as far as they go. But doesn’t Buddhism itself have more to offer?

It’s not clear what. So, some Buddhist leaders worry that secular mindfulness will displace Buddhism. Meditation is modern Buddhism’s killer app, its signature dish; and if you can get it a la carte, maybe no one will order the whole five-course banquet.

If the rest of the menu is unappealing, maybe Buddhism deserves to go out of business. However, I share the feeling that the mindfulness movement may leave out too much. Some sort of baby is lost when the bathwater of obsolete cultural traditions is thrown away. But what is that baby, if not “enlightenment” (or some equivalent euphemism like “liberation”)?

There seems to be something in Buddhism—maybe several things—that are enormously powerful and beautiful, but hard to put a finger on. Perhaps when people talk about “enlightenment,” really they are just pointing at that mystery. We can’t say quite what the value is, but we think we know it when we glimpse it. And maybe we don’t want to discuss it because we’re afraid that maybe it doesn’t really exist, or that trying to pin it down in words will make it slip away permanently.

What do you want from Buddhism, if enlightenment is not on the menu?

I find that a hard question. I don’t want to offer—or accept—a facile textbook reply. I’m somewhat unsure, for myself. I certainly don’t think there’s any one right answer.

Over the next four pages, I’ll sketch one approach, based in Buddhist tantra. I’ll suggest that it offers a way of living that is enjoyable for you and valuable to others. The aim is elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive action in the real world. The four pages will cover mastery, power, play, and nobility.

There is no endpoint in this approach. You can’t finally get it. You can get better at it, though, and that’s what tantra is good for. “Elegant, accurate, kind, effective, and expansive” are the “five tantric wisdoms.” (You can read about them in Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy.)

Compared with “enlightenment,” maybe this seems mundane and disappointing. But maybe what I have already written about “spacious passion” and “unclogging energy” will motivate you to continue reading. Maybe “nobility” will be inspiring when we get to it.

Maybe these are things Buddhism can offer that “mindfulness” and “Buddhist ethics” cannot.

Maybe many people would want them—if Buddhism can actually deliver them.