Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions

For many Westerners, Buddhism is mainly about wholeness and connection.

Modern life is atomizing and alienating:

This fragmentation and isolation seems unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable. Many of us turn to spirituality or religion for answers.

For modern Buddhists, meditation is meant to bring healing wholeness and connectedness. The Buddhist worldview is meant to explain how wholeness and connectedness are lost and regained.

Yet this is not what most forms of Buddhism promised, before the 20th century. Quite the opposite…

Three contradictory visions; one Consensus

“Consensus” Buddhism incorporates three quite different ways of approaching wholeness and connection: no-self renunciation, monist mysticism, and tantra. These appear to be radically contradictory, and unreconcilable.

Can the Consensus successfully synthesize them into a single, unified religion? I’ll suggest that, no, attempts to combine these approaches will always fail, with specific, predictable bad results. What, then, is the motivation for merging them?

First, let’s take a quick look at wholeness and connection in the three approaches.

1. No-self and world-renunciation

This is not at all the approach to wholeness and connection most Western Buddhists are looking for!

But, it is the Asian Buddhism mainstream: the approach of the Theravada scriptures, and of many branches of Mahayana. It is where the Consensus Buddhist teachers began, with modernized Theravada in the 1970s.

However, because renunciation takes you in the opposite direction from the way most Westerners want to go, Consensus teachers have supplemented it with other approaches.

2. Monist mysticism

This is the approach of Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism. It is also the approach of German Romantic Idealism. That’s an early-1800s metaphysical spirituality that remains hugely influential in the West despite few remembering its history.

The monist approach has been explicitly condemned by nearly all Buddhist schools, throughout the history of Buddhism, up to the 20th century.

It has, however, become popular in Western Buddhism in the past few decades. Westerners want wholeness and connection, and monism claims to provide perfect wholeness and total connection.

Why not mix some monism into Buddhism to give the customers what they want? Because monism can’t deliver. In fact, it produces the exact opposite results to what it promises.

Regarding wholeness:

And as for connection:

3. Buddhist Tantra

Explained this way, Tantric Buddhism seems much more what Westerners want. Tantra says wholeness and connection are good things, unlike the no-self renunciate approach. And, the metaphysical claims of tantra are far more reasonable than those of monism.

Yet tantra has had little influence on Consensus Buddhism. Why is it not more popular?

Mixing up contradictory approaches causes trouble

All three approaches have fed into Consensus Buddhism. However, it has not reconciled their contradictions. These conflicts lead to specific, predictable patterns of trouble:

Silencing disagreement

Consensus Buddhism has not merely failed to reconcile these contradictions. It has not even tried. In fact, it has deliberately suppressed the discussions that might have led to clarifying them.

The contradictions have been recognized and discussed within Buddhism for thousands of years. These discussions have often been heated. That is not “nice.”

Consensus Buddhism often dismisses genuine religious differences as:

Using these excuses, the Consensus has swept contradictions under a blanket of silence. Dissenting voices have been ostracized as “aggressive.” (This is one of several reasons I use the word “Consensus” for mainstream Western Buddhism.)

We need to reopen these questions, not suppress them in the name of tolerance. It is possible to argue about them constructively and respectfully. But even vicious dispute might be better than pretending that incompatible approaches can be combined.

Previous syntheses

In papering over its contradictions, Consensus Buddhism has borrowed rhetoric from two earlier attempts at synthesis. These are the 20th century export-Zen combination of no-self and monism, and the Gelukpa combination of renunciation and tantra.

Combining no-self and monism

Most Zen in the West descends from the New Buddhism of D. T. Suzuki, and/or the Sanbo Kyodan approach of the Harada-Yasutani lineage. (I wrote about these in a previous post, “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

Both of these New Zens were explicitly created as export products for Westerners. Both explicitly incorporate Western monist mysticism. Both explicitly state that their “Zen” is not specifically Buddhist. Both are rejected by mainstream Japanese Zen teachers.

The Suzuki/Harada/Yasutani approach claims that no-self and True Self are the same thing; that various Buddhist concepts (such as Buddha, nirvana, or emptiness) are the same as the impersonal God (or “Absolute”) of Western monism; and that the goal of Zen meditation is to realize the unity of the True Self with this Absolute.

“New Zen” was one of the two main sources for Consensus Buddhism (together with modernized Theravada). Its Japanese origin provides a cover of apparent authenticity, which allows continuing import of dubious Western religious and philosophical ideas into Buddhism.

I find this combination absurd and actively harmful. More about that below.

Combining renunciation and tantra

The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism practices tantra in a renunciate framework. Roughly, it combines renunciate goals with tantric methods. It describes Tantra as an arcane, dangerous collection of adjunct rituals for deepening renunciation, suitable only for monks who have completed many years of preliminary intellectual study.

The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelukpa school. He was directly involved in founding Consensus Buddhism, sponsoring the early-1990s conferences where the Consensus was organized. His take on tantra has formed the Consensus view of the subject.

The Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I belong) rejects the Gelukpa approach. It sees renunciation and tantra both as valid paths. However, they have different goals, and their methods cannot be merged because their fundamental principles are so different. Tantra can be pursued independently from renunciation; it does not require extensive intellectual preparation; and it is especially suitable for non-monks.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the most influential teacher of Buddhist tantra in the West. The 1980s sex and drug scandals around him were one of the main factors leading to the founding of the Consensus (at the Dalai Lama’s conferences).

These scandals discredited tantra for many Westerners. They were a convenient pretext to impose the conservative Gelukpa view that tantra should be reserved for a few special people, and neutered with elaborate moralistic safeguards.

Because the Consensus adopted this attitude, tantric practices are effectively unavailable in Western Buddhism. Tantra’s influence is limited to esoteric concepts, and the general idea that Buddhism promotes personal transformation. The Consensus has continued to use various maneuvers to suppress tantric practice, and to silence debate about its suitability for Westerners.

I’ll discuss this recent history in detail in a later post.

Process note

On average, it takes me three days of full-time work to produce each web page. Early in this series, I was able to write a new post every few days, because I was working on it full time. Unfortunately, other responsibilities make that impossible for now. In hope that I may finish the series someday, I have decided to drop several big pieces of it.

I had planned to write a full page about what went so wrong in export Zen, and how. That turns out to be a big, difficult topic. There is some basis for monist ideas in the Mahayana scriptures. Sorting out exactly how Sanbo Kyodan distorted Buddhism would be a lot of work, and not of interest to many people. In fact, personally, I don’t care in the least whether monism is traditional or untraditional in Buddhism, so I’m dropping that question.

What matters is not that monism is un-Buddhist, but that it is harmful: it causes unnecessary suffering. It leads people in exactly the wrong direction, away from effective methods for establishing wholeness and connection, and instead into day-dream fantasies of magical invulnerability, omnipotence, and immortality.

It’s important to explain this clearly. However, my tentative plan is to do that on my Meaningness book site. Monism is not a central failing of Consensus Buddhism, so it’s not critical to debunk it here. On the other hand, I had already planned to do that in the Meaningness book before I began this blog on the Consensus.

What I want to do here next is to explain how and why tantra has been excluded from Western Buddhism, and what we can do about it. I will advocate a renewed, reinvented tantra that may better address 21st century spiritual concerns than the Consensus approach can.