The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview

This page is an outline of my series on the “crumbling mainstream Western Buddhist consensus.”

Introduction

Several pages introduce the theme of the series. I wrote these in a rush, as I explain in a preface, and they are not as worked-out as later posts.

I began with a summary, which is now out of date and needs revision, but may still be useful.

Brad Warner vs. the Maha Teachers

I started to post this series when news broke of the 2011 Garrison Institute Maha Teachers Conference. This was the first major get-together of the “Consensus” Western Buddhist establishment in ten years. I think this was important because it suggests that the “Consensus” recognizes that something is wrong with its approach.

I had been planning the series for a couple of years, but it wasn’t really ready to go yet. However, the Maha Conference prompted me to go ahead anyway.

“Nice” Buddhism

This page explains some of what “Consensus Western Buddhism” is; its key ideas, values, and worldview.

It also begins to explain why the consensus is in crisis.

Traditional and modern Buddhism: an oppressive duopoly

Consensus Western Buddhism is a “modernist” movement. So, it defines itself partly with reference to and against Buddhist traditionalism; and partly as aligned with other modernist movements.

Buddhism (in Asia as well as in the West) is now polarized into modernist and traditional versions. I suggest that neither of these is workable. Nor is some compromise or Middle Way between them the right answer.

Key texts

These have shaped my understanding of the current crisis in Western Buddhism:

I have a full page on The Making of Modern Buddhism, the most important influence on this series.

Inclusion, exclusion, unity and diversity

Consensus Buddhism sees itself as extremely inclusive and open to everyone. It’s blind to the reasons it actually excludes most people other than politically-correct white folks from the Baby Boom generation.

Its non-appeal to younger generations is the major sign of crisis.

The modernization of Buddhism in Asia: 1850-1950

I was astonished to discover that much of what we think of as “Western” Buddhism was created in Asia, more than a hundred years ago, under Western influence. This is not widely understood. Many things we think of as “traditional Buddhism” are authentically Asian, but were invented only recently. Knowing that they are not “timeless Eastern wisdom” makes it easier to ask whether we want them.

Buddhism vs. colonialism

Modern Buddhism was forged in Asia, in the late 1800s, as an ideological weapon against Western colonial aggression. It was surprisingly successful. But, we ought to ask whether a system developed for that purpose is ideal for our current needs.

Protestant Buddhism

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a “Protestant Buddhism” reform movement radically reshaped the religion. Based on core concepts from Protestant Christianity, this is the Buddhism we have today.

Mostly, I think these reforms were a good thing, but I’ll suggest that some Protestant Buddhist themes we take for granted may actually be unhelpful for our time.

Problems with scripture

Giving ultimate religious authority to scripture, rather than tradition, was one of the key Protestant Christian reforms. Protestant Buddhism has done the same. In both cases, this causes problems because scripture requires interpretation.

A new World Religion

A hundred years ago, it was politically imperative to remake Buddhism to conform to a particular European concept of what a “World Religion” was supposed to look like. A World Religion needed to be just like Christianity, only more modern (according to the 1900 standard of “modern.”) This concept is obsolete, but it has left deep marks on the Buddhism we have now. Some may now be unhelpful.

Zen vs. the U.S. Navy

This post describes the modernization of Zen under political, religious, and military pressure from the West.

The King of Siam invents Western Buddhism

Mongkut, the King of Siam, radically reformed Theravada Buddhism to conform to Western ideas. His creation is the single largest contribution to contemporary Western Buddhism.

Modern meditation

The meditation techniques that are most widely practiced now were invented less than a hundred years ago, in Asia, under Western influence. Most traditional meditation techniques have been ignored or rejected because they didn’t conform to Western values.

I am not a traditionalist, and I don’t believe “older is better.” However, I think we’ve lost some valuable practices because they were unacceptable to Protestant missionaries or to 1970s hippies.

Theravada reinvents meditation

Modern vipassana, and mindfulness meditation, were invented recently in Thailand and Burma. That doesn’t make them “inauthentic,” in my view. It does show that these methods are not set in stone, straight from the Buddha’s mouth. So there is room for continued innovation, and also for recovery of earlier practices that might again be valuable.

The essence of all religions?

Many Western Buddhists take for granted a particular “mystical” understanding of what meditation does and how. I think this understanding is wrong. Also, although it may be traditional for some Buddhisms, it is certainly not at all the mainstream traditional Buddhism view. So it is at least open to question.

What got left out of “meditation”?

This post describes some of the many practices that modern Buddhism has abandoned, and why. I think the reasons are often not good ones, and we’ve lost much of value. Later posts suggest ways those practices can be recovered.

Disgust, horror, and Western Buddhism

I discuss corpse practice, a particularly unacceptable traditional meditation method, and explain why it is valuable.

Effing the ineffable

The mystical (mis)interpretation of meditation is defended with claims that enlightenment experiences are ineffable. This post points out that ineffability cannot justify big metaphysical ideas. Those have to stand on their own two feet, not rely on vague pronouncements about the meaning of dramatic meditation experiences.

Who’s got it?

Metaphysical claims about meditation and enlightenment are often justified by pointing at what supposedly-enlightened people say. Unfortunately, they say quite different things. Also unfortunately, we have not good way of telling who is enlightened.

The quest for the True Self

Modern Buddhism often explains meditation as a method for examining internal experience to see through the false self (or ego), to find the True Self. I suggest that this is a mistake—not least because there is no True Self.

The quest for The Absolute

The monist (mis)interpretation of meditation sees enlightenment as unification with The Absolute, which is the Ultimate Truth, the undifferentiated One, the source of all goodness, and The Entire Universe. I suggest that there is no such thing. It’s actually the Christian God in disguise, and God is undead.

Monist meditation causes the problem it seeks to treat

The monist All-Is-One approach tries to connect a non-existent True Self with a non-existent Absolute. Both of these are vague abstractions. Meditating this way actively hinders the creation of concrete connections with real-world specifics.

So what is meditation, then?

Some Western Buddhists may be unable to conceive of any other explanation for meditation and enlightenment. In fact, traditional Buddhisms offer several. Here I sketch two. Neither is necessarily the right one, but this shows that there are non-monist alternatives.

Ritual

Most traditional Buddhist practice is ritual. Ritual is unacceptable to modernism, and Western Buddhism mostly abandoned it. In this section, I explain the valuable functions of ritual; the reasons we don’t like it; and ways of overcoming those reasons. I suggest that we could reinvent Buddhist ritual in ways suitable for our time.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Renunciation, transformation, and Tantra

Western Buddhism is based mainly on modernized Theravada, whose fundamental principle is the renunciation of desire. Unfortunately, Westerners have zero interest in renunciation, so this doesn’t work well.

What Western Buddhists want is personal transformation. That’s an entirely different thing, requiring entirely different methods. Consensus Buddhism has incorporated non-Buddhist transformative methods, from psychotherapy and the New Age.

As it happens, there is a branch of Buddhism that aims at transformation, through enjoyment, namely Tantra (Vajrayana). It was designed specifically for lay people, who have no interest in giving up sensory pleasure. I suggest that Tantric Buddhism would be a better starting point for Western Buddhism. There are serious obstacles to that, but I hope they can be overcome.

Unfortunately, Tantra is not nice. That means it has been actively suppressed by the Consensus.

This section will be about five posts; I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll organize the material.

Buddhist Perennialism: enforced consensus

Perennialism” is the claim that all religions are essentially the same.

Buddhist Perennialism is the claim that all Buddhist traditions have a shared essence, and that core is what is really important. Whatever is not shared must be culturally-specific, is irrelevant to the West, and should be abandoned.

Buddhist Perennialism is one of the major strategies the Consensus establishment has used to suppress alternatives. It implies that anything outside the Consensus is conservative traditionalism, and any opposition to the Consensus is a nasty, narrow, sectarian attack on the sacred shared Buddhist core.

Perennialism also suggests that Buddhism has essentially the same message as other religions, especially Christianity and Hinduism. This is used as a strategy to white-wash importing dubious Christian and Hindu values and concepts into Buddhism.

Problems with priests

This section discusses the difficulties Western Buddhism has had with the teacher/student relationship. I look at Protestant Christianity as a model.

What Buddhist ethics?

Consensus Buddhism equals mindfulness meditation plus ethics. Here I express skepticism that Buddhism has anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics.

Consensus Buddhism: 1960—2005

This section traces the history of “Consensus” Buddhism—the modern Western mainstream. Understanding how it became what it is helps understand its limitations, and where we might go next.

If I ever get out of here

Consensus Buddhism was created by self-described hippies. This post looks at their early history, in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Saving the world

I see all forms of Buddhism as solutions to social and cultural problems that arise at particular times. This post looks at the problems experienced by the Baby Boom creators of Consensus Buddhism, and explains how they tried to solve them.

Trungpa Rinpoche & Nice Buddhism

One of the main motivations for the creation of the Consensus was to avoid any repeat of the Chögyam Trungpa debacle.  Trungpa Rinpoche was a “controversial” Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who did some things he probably shouldn’t have. His appointed successor did worse things.

Apart from the actual harm done, this was seen as disastrous negative publicity for Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism). Part of the founding self-definition of the Consensus is we are nothing like Trungpa, and we’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Especially, we are going to ensure that everybody who’s allowed to teach Buddhism is extremely nice.

Unfortunately, “niceness” is incompatible with most of Buddhism. That meant that most of Buddhism was collateral damage when the establishment suppressed any possible manifestations of Trungpa-like-ness.

The Dharmasala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences

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.”

Heartening signs of impending collapse

Here I collect various indications that the Consensus is breaking down, mainly not because of attack from outside, but due to its own internal contradictions.

Several of the leaders of the establishment seem to have figured out that Consensus Western Buddhism doesn’t work even for them. And it’s glaringly obvious that it isn’t working for the post-Boomer generations.

Buddhism after systems

Here I expand on the argument I’ve made earlier that the biggest threat to Buddhism is the contemporary wholesale rejection of all systems, and the “shattering” of ideologies by consumer culture.

If Buddhism is to survive, it may have to adapt to a world in which no one “belongs to” any religion; in which we all assemble fluid identities out of disparate fragments of culture.

That is a world in which no “mainstream” or “consensus” is possible. “Buddhism” will disintegrate: not just into its many schools and lineages, but into its innumerable diverse practices, theories, and ways of talking.

This may be unfortunate, but I think it’s inevitable. Trying to hold systems together is doomed. So the question is, what can we do to best help those who will inherit this fragmentation?

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20 Responses to The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview

  1. nathan says:

    “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.

  2. Noah says:

    “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…”

    CRAZY.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. nathan says:

    “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.

  6. jonckher says:

    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.

  7. 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?

  8. @ 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.

  9. dunrossinsf says:

    David,

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

    cheers,

    Gregg

  10. Pingback: Post-Traditional Buddhism: The Quiet Revolution? Part Two. ~ Matthew O'Connell | elephant journal

  11. misinformation everywhere says:

    YOU ARE WRONG ABOUT VIPISSANA… IT COMES FROM THE FIRST LINEAGE OF BUDDHISM.. YOU KNOW, THE MONKS WHO THE HISTORICAL BUDDHA ACTUALLY GAVE HIS TEACHINGS?

  12. 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?

  13. Pingback: Drugs not Meditation « the unhistoricist

  14. Pingback: What got left out of “meditation”? by David Chapman | Standing in an Open Field

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  16. nines says:

    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.

  17. paarsurrey says:

    @ 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

    Thanks

  18. 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.

  19. paarsurrey says:

    @ 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?

  20. 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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