Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as "Buddhist" and banned Tantra

Many of the Western creators of Consensus Buddhism say in their autobiographies that they went to Asia because they were disgusted with the sex-and-drugs hedonism of hippie culture. Coming from Protestant cultures, they were looking for a system of self-restraint, but they had rejected Christianity.

Traditional Buddhism is renunciate, not Protestant, and renunciation is also unacceptable to Americans. But Buddhist values had already been partially replaced with Protestant ones in the Asian modernist forms the Consensus founders encountered in the 1960s and 70s. They could, and did, continue that process.

The lay precepts against sexual misconduct and intoxication may have come at first as welcome repudiations of hippie self-indulgence. However, as we’ll see on the next page, they had to be loosened, reinterpreted, and effectively negated to function in America.

When the Consensus leaders returned to America and began teaching in the late 1970s, they mainly taught meditation. Their encounters with modern Asian “Buddhist ethics” may have been personally useful, but they rarely gave more than cursory attention to it in their teaching, until the late 1980s.

Until the mid-1980s, vipassana was taught in the West with much less emphasis on ethics than in Southeast Asia. Since then, and particularly in the United States, an increasing stress has been placed on ethics and on the traditional Buddhist precepts for the laity. The change was to a great extent a response to both a wider cultural interest in ethics and to a significant number of ethical transgressions by Asian and Western teachers of Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada Buddhism.1

I’m not sure what “a wider cultural interest in ethics” means. However, most Baby Boomer Buddhists by then had children, and some had jobs with management responsibility. Both these turn the mind to moral issues. Growing demand from their Buddhist flock probably forced Consensus leaders into another reinvention of “Buddhist ethics.” This new system, addressing the specific moral issues of the day, simply repackaged leftish secular morality in Buddhist jargon. Suddenly Buddhism was sexually liberal, feminist, and environmentally conscious—ideas alien to even the most modern Asian Theravada of the time. My next two posts will examine this process, and its motivation, in greater detail.

The “guru crisis” was the other trend that made it urgent to invent a new Buddhist ethics. There was a rash of egregious behavior by teachers of Eastern religions, including prominent American-born Buddhists. This provoked a hysterical moral panic. However, probably something did need to be done.

The Protestant response to any moral problem begins with soul-searching: might I, personally, do something like that? How can I be sure I won’t? What principles would restrain me? This led to a new, more serious examination of ethics by American Buddhist leaders.

Of course, it would have been convenient if traditional Buddhist morality had something to say, but mostly it didn’t. Vinaya would theoretically prohibit sexual and financial abuse, but in practice it didn’t. Also, few American teachers were monks or nuns, so vinaya was irrelevant. Furthermore, perhaps the most egregious case was Ösel Tendzin, who taught Vajrayana, in which theoretically the authority of teachers over students is unlimited.

The Consensus leaders promoted a new ethical code for Buddhist teachers, notionally based on the lay precepts. Its invention was guided by the Dalai Lama, who convened an ecumenical Conference of Western Buddhist Teachers in 1993. The event was the de facto founding of the Consensus as a political organization. The participants issued an “Open Letter,” stating their consensus opinion on the ethics of Buddhist teaching.

The Dalai Lama had his own agenda, which he did not disclose to the Conference participants; at least one (Stephen Batchelor) wrote later that he felt deceived and used.2 Part of the Dalai Lama’s motivation was to prohibit Western Buddhist Tantra. The Open Letter (which he wrote much of, but—at the last moment—did not sign) does exactly that. Its central point is:

No matter what level of spiritual attainment a teacher has, or claims to have reached, no person can stand above the norms of ethical conduct. In order for the Buddhadharma not to be brought into disrepute and to avoid harm to students and teachers, it is necessary that all teachers at least live by the five lay precepts.

This is incompatible with Buddhist Tantra, in which it is critical that not only teachers, but also students, explicitly vow to violate the precepts.

A clear example is the samaya vow to drink alcohol in tsok. Although alcohol has a specific tantric mind-altering role, the function of the vow is also an unambiguous, in-your-face rejection of the precepts (and vinaya) as a whole. All tantrikas also vow to kill people when that is the right thing to do; and so on for the other precepts. Obviously the Dalai Lama understood perfectly that the Letter prohibited Tantra, even if some of the Westerners who signed it may not have.

Thus, in the West, Buddhist Tantra was banned specifically in the name of “Buddhist ethics.” (Now one reason I am writing about Buddhist ethics comes into focus!)

Of course, few Consensus teachers even attempt or pretend to live by the lay precepts. As we’ll see on the next page, the precepts contradict current secular morality, so they are not part of “Buddhist ethics”—not without radical reinterpretation, anyway.

But for Tantrikas, violation of the precepts is a fundamental point of principle, not just weaseling.

An upcoming page discusses several contradictions between Buddhist Tantra and “Buddhist ethics,” i.e. leftish secular morality. These contributed to the Consensus’s motivation for suppressing modern Western Tantra. I will sketch reasons I think Tantra is ethically right on these points, and leftish secular morality is wrong.

  1. Gil Fronsdal, “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, 1998. See also the discussion in his “Virtues without Rules“, 2002. 
  2. Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, pp. 204-5.