Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers

Brad Warner has just blogged about the Maha Teachers Council. He thinks it’s a problem that he was not invited—not because his ego’s offended, but because it means the conference organizers are actively excluding what he represents.

I think he’s right. In fact, I suspect the conference is all about what he represents, and that is why he wasn’t invited. [Update: apparently he was sent an invitation that got lost.] But his piece doesn’t explain what that is and why they are excluding that. Here’s my theory.

  • Brad Warner spits on the Nice Buddhist Consensus. (More about this below.)
  • He is not a traditionalist. The Consensus wants to dismiss most alternatives as motivated by cultural conservatism.
  • His credentials are impeccable. He can’t be dismissed as a self-appointed “fake” teacher.
  • He has no significant organized following, so he can’t be dismissed as a cult leader.
  • He does not charge for teaching, so he can’t be dismissed as a spiritual entrepreneur. On the other hand, he criticizes the Consensus establishment for selling Dharma—a vulnerable point for them.
  • He has too large a following to ignore.
  • Especially, he appeals to people born after 1965, which the Consensus mostly doesn’t.

Here’s his own take on the shindig:

My fear is that Buddhism in America is going exactly the same direction as punk did when it became codified into a single prevailing fashion and sound. There is an accepted group of tastemakers and trendsetters within American Buddhism. They are entrenched as such and seek constantly to reify their positions and to expand their influence…

This conference “further consolidates a power base for a select group of individuals to determine the mainstream Buddhist message” in the words of Marnie Louise Froberg in her blog Mudhashala. It’s not that these people can enact any sort of legislation that is in any way binding. But they do have the power of their magazines and their institutes to push their version of the American Buddhist status quo.

I agree with this, but I think there’s a dimension that he and Marnie Louise Froberg are missing: the Western Buddhist elite are running scared. Something important is happening, and they don’t understand it.  They can’t understand from within their framework of “Boomeritis Buddhism.”

But, the “Maha Teachers” now understand that they don’t understand, and they are trying to figure it out. My guess is that is an unstated purpose of the conference.

If they do figure it out, they may try to quash it, or they may try to coopt it. (Much of the blogosphere comment so far has been concern about this.)

I hope, instead, that the Maha Teachers might genuinely embrace it. I’d like to think that the establishment Nice Buddhists are good guys; they are just locked into a wrong worldview. Maybe they can escape it. Maybe they’ll tear down the Consensus from within. (But that would mean letting go…)

Spitting on the Consensus

I’m blogging in a hurry, as events unfold, so I haven’t yet explained what the Consensus is. A big part of it concerns the proper role of Buddhist teachers. (This was the main subject of the 1993 Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conference, which established the Consensus.) Brad Warner’s description is that the Consensus says teachers should be professional, which he adamantly refuses to be.

In Karma Dipped in Chocolate, he plays up his having sex with a student, his marital infidelity, and his drug use. He doesn’t clearly explain why. Here’s my take on that.

The Consensus wants to have a bunch of legalistic rules about what Buddhist teachers can and cannot do. This is antithetical to at least some forms of Buddhism (including Zen and Vajrayana).

The point is that, in context, his sex & drug activities were clearly benign (assuming he is telling the truth about the context, which no one seems to dispute). Meanwhile, the Western Buddhist establishment’s attempts at standards, credentials, and governance has clearly failed to prevent genuinely bad behavior by Western Buddhist teachers. (The Genpo affair, on which Brad Warner and Marnie Froberg have both commented extensively, is the most recent major example.)

This suggests that a legalistic approach of teacher behavioral standards can’t work. In fact, Zen and Vajrayana both make it explicit that rule-based ethics can’t work, more generally.

So, his sex & drug stories in Chocolate spit in the face of the Consensus.

[Update: Brad has blogged about my post here. (Thanks!) It's a somewhat mixed review but does end "nice articles." I've tried to correct the inaccuracies he noted.]

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18 Responses to Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers

  1. nathan says:

    James Ford’s posts from the council seem to demonstrate that nothing much is happening there. I think you, and Marnie, and others are hitting at some of the major issues facing Western convert Buddhism, but I don’t believe this conference, for example, is even about such lofty questions as “whether the consensus is breaking up” and “what do we need to do about it?”

    These folks can’t even get together enough to create something like a legalistic framework for dealing with teacher scandals, let alone try and collectively speak and attempt to control the general direction of Buddhist practice. With Genpo, what you have had is various groups of teachers and orgs (like White Plum) speaking out about his misdeeds, while others spoke out defending him. It was all talk though. There aren’t any structures in place, and no one from the outside can really do much about Genpo’s situation. In the end, it’s him and his sangha, for better or worse. And I doubt that anything like that will suddenly appear from a less than a week long conference.

    I just honestly don’t see the folks at this conference as being organized enough in any manner to actually do anything like directing, co-opting, or managing the mainstream of Western Buddhist practice. They represent it, and influence the general perception of Buddhism through their teaching, centers, books, and other writings. They are certainly sold as “Buddhism” to the masses. But I have spent enough time behind the scenes in our local Zen community – with it’s half a dozen Zen centers across a state or so – to know that one thing seems to be prevalent – and that’s a lack of cooperation. You wanna talk about Boomeritis – the whole focus on individual, psychological practice fits perfect with a sense that each sangha is an island.

    I’m not saying these folks never work together, but I doubt there’s a sense of actively excluding what people like Brad Warner represent. You’re giving too much credit to this rather disparate group of teachers.

  2. I agree that this conference isn’t going to produce an effective governing body. But I don’t think that’s something they would want to do. The mainstream Western Buddhist establishment thinks of itself as anti-authority (it’s a bunch of 60s hippies, after all!).

    Where I would disagree is that I think talk is their form of power; and I think it’s powerful power. The accounts I’ve read of the 1993 Dharamsala conference (on which this one seems to be modeled) are pretty similar to James Ford’s account of the current one: it was boring and stupid. Yet it set the terms for 15 years of Buddhism in the West. (Or so I will suggest!)

    Also, Brad Warner is, clearly, one of the most important current American Buddhist teachers. James Ford, frankly, isn’t, and neither are a lot of the other people on the invitees list that he posted. Brad Warner was actively excluded; they had to decide to leave him out.

  3. Another thought: these affairs are much more top-down than they are designed to appear. (This is based on accounts I’ve read of previous ones in the informal series.)

    There’s a dozen or so people who organized the event, and they’ll be leading the panels and giving the keynote talks. Because they’re pretending to be anti-hierarchical, everyone will be given a chance to blather. That lets the organizers take the temperature of the Zeitgeist, and lets everyone feel important. It also gives the impression that it’s disorganized, grass-roots, inclusive, holistic, spontaneous, authentic, and all that b.s. “processing” stuff.

    But the main message was already decided long ago. One big purpose of the event is to transmit a core message from the top dozen guys to the second tier (“useful idiots”), who are then supposed to pass it on to everyone else. The message is going to be something along the lines of “here’s how to think about our passing Western Buddhist leadership to the next generation.”

  4. I have a fundamental question that’s slightly related to these discussions.

    Can someone define ‘Buddhism’ in a way that is accepted by everyone who considers themselves Buddhist? I think there will be strong overlaps, but I’m not sure if there’s any one thing that everyone would say ‘yes’ to.

    The pragmatic reason for the question is that I’m a member of a group which represents Buddhist organisations, and we are sometimes asked to decide whether an organisation is Buddhist or not. I have yet to see a clear definition.

    Whilst the Maha Teachers are meeting, could we put something on their agenda. Please define Buddhism in a way that is acceptable to all Buddhists.

  5. David says:

    I think it is naive to think that a gathering of 230 of the most influential teachers will produce nothing. For one thing, they can arrive at a consensus on certain issues, go back to their sanghas, sway opinion, manufacture consent and so on. Don’t get me wrong, I am not painting a big conspiracy here, just saying that there are possibilities to be considered.

    A lot of what Richard says here resonates with me. At the same time, I have been involved in a few inter-tradition situations and I know that when one group of people have an agenda, it’s sometimes easy to get others to go along because most of these folks are loathe to do anything “un-Buddhist” such as object, complain, disagree or be anything other than passive.

    It’s hard to say one way or the other. We don’t really know what is behind the conference or what is going on there. But just the appearance of a more or less unknown group gathering these people together behind closed doors so to speak, is enough to raise some eyebrows in my opinion.

    I doubt seriously that the purpose is to formulate an attack plan against Boomeritis, which I feel is pretty much a manufactured issue. Nor do I think Warner is that important of a teacher, but I think he is certainly authentic than Ford, who has been extremely defensive and dismissive about the whole thing. In spite of Ford’s live blogging comments, I don’t buy the idea that it’s a boring, just a get-to-know-each-other-affair. Someone, perhaps it was him, mentioned that this conference had been planned at least a year in advance. And yet, we are supposed to believe that it’s just an unorganized gab-fest?

  6. David says:

    Sorry, I meant Nathan not Richard. Embarrassing.

  7. nathan says:

    What’s interesting about excluding Brad, whether deliberately or not, is that he also represents “anti-hierarchy.” In fact, if they really had a big agenda to push, and wanted to make it appear more inclusive, adding Brad would have helped the cause so to speak. I actually am not convinced Brad is as a “radical” and counter this group as he might appear to be. I have actually practiced with him before. For all the pomp and circus in his writings, the guy is pretty similar to other Soto Zen teachers in a lot of ways. Really into Dogen. Heavy focus on zazen. Is pretty friendly and open to various viewpoints from folks. He dismisses most ritual, and has no interest in leading a community or having a bunch of active students, but I don’t think he’s actually actively blowing that many holes in the “Nice Buddhism” framework you speak about in other posts. The one major difference, perhaps, is that Brad represents a more go it alone approach, where practice need not be tied to a particular sangha or teacher. This, maybe, is the thing that is most concerning to some of the accepted “mainstream teachers,” who tend to place a strong emphasis on both having a specific teacher to practice with, and also a sangha to be in.

  8. waste of time says:

    turns out brad was invited but somehow didnt get the invite. see the comments to his hardcore zen blog and his suicide girls blog. i guess a bunch of people feel stupid now that they ranted on and on about the meaning of his non-invite.

    or not.

  9. Pingback: The New Improved Buddhist Council [now with more enzymes, lather and added vitamins] written by MADHUSHALAAnother MUST READ for Western Practitioners | 1 of 84,000 Dharma Doors Blog

  10. Here’s Brad Warner’s apology. As far as he knows, he didn’t get the invitation, but accepts the organizers’ word for it that he was sent one.

    But, this is not really relevant—to my point, anyway! Which is that Buddhism in America is changing out from under an establishment consensus, and it appears that they are actively working out their response. Because the establishment does have a lot of power, this is important to the future of Buddhism.

    I don’t consider the consensus establishment an enemy; I do think they have had some big blind spots, which has caused problems for people with other views. I am hopeful that their eyes are opening to alternatives.

    The more articulate those of us outside the consensus can be, the more likely they will be open to our points of view. I’m doing the best I can here, although the rapid pace of the blogosphere is forcing me to think things through less carefully than I’m used to.

    I forget whether I’ve posted a link in this series to a page I wrote a couple years ago about Buddhism in the post-Boomer generations.

    There’s a thoughtful report on the last day of the Maha Teachers’ Council by Sumi Loudon Kim; I recommend it.

    Her perspective as a Theravadin is massively different from mine (from the yogic wing of Tibetan Buddhism). I think one of the problems with the Consensus is trying to synthesize Theravada, Zen, and Vajrayana. (I’ll have a full page on that in maybe ten days—a draft is in progress.) I think we can all respect each other and get along. But I think that we have almost nothing in common besides a shared origin myth.

    Maybe this goes to ‘ö-Dzin Tridral’s point, above. Ngakpa ‘ö-Dzin, what do you think?

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  12. David Brazier has posted an interesting, strongly-worded series of reports on the Garrison Buddhist Maha Teachers’ Conference (here, here, and here).

    According to his account, the Council was “essentially an ideological exercise in which large group pressure was mobilised to get one to identify with a liberal American agenda only distantly related to Buddhism.” This Buddhism-as-political-correctness approach has been central in previous conferences in this informal series. It’s what Ken Wilber called “Boomeritis Buddhism,” and what I’m calling “Consensus Western Buddhism.”

  13. I’ve been mulling over my own question of a definition of Buddhism and also the idea of any kind of ‘Consensus Buddhism’ – Western or otherwise.

    I’m leaning towards the idea that there can be no consensus – that there’s no definition of Buddhism that wouldn’t exclude someone who thought of themselves as a Buddhist.

    The nearest I could come to anything that might be non-excluding is to see Buddhism as the practice of Kindness and Awareness. But I’m entirely open to the possibility that this may sound nothing like the Buddhism that other people practice.

  14. Lama Surya Das, one of the organizers of the Maha Teachers conference, discusses it in a new interview here.

    Mostly he says “nothing to see here, move along” and “it was all very nice and nothing happened except we had a great time and shared our feelings and bonded as a diverse but loving and intimate group in a proper Californian way”. But there are a few interesting points.

    1) He confirms that the organizers saw this as a continuation of the series that began in Dharamsala in 1993 (which I take to be the founding of the Consensus as an organization). Interestingly, this was the first conference since 2001. That tends to confirm that it was called with a sense of crisis or unease. The Consensus had a firm grip by the late 90s and kept it until recently. It could coast. Now it feels that there’s a problem, which the Council was meant to address.

    2) He confirms that the main intended topic was “the future of Western Buddhism, and passing the torch to the next generation.” (He sounds a bit peeved that the masses, invited to the second less-exclusive half of the conference, didn’t get that message, and went off-topic.)

    “The future of Western Buddhism” and the generational issue are the topics I’m particularly interested in, and which this blog series is about, so it’s good to know that the Maha Teachers Council really was highly relevant, and I’m not just being paranoid and frothing at the mouth.

  15. Brad Warner says:

    Thanks. One point, though. I wouldn’t say that I refuse to accept money for teaching Buddhism. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

    I will happily accept money for public speaking events. In fact I have been trying to get a bit more for these lately. In some ways these could be considered “teaching Buddhism” although I tend to think of them more as entertainment. But I do talk mainly about Buddhism at these events. I’m referring here to talks I give at various universities, city auditoriums, libraries, etc.

    When I do dharma talks (which aren’t quite the same as public speaking events, but often the line is blurred) or lead retreats, I do accept donations. And if the event requires travel, I accept payment for those expenses (otherwise I couldn’t go). While I try not to put a price on Buddhist teaching, I’ve found that with the meager income I get from book sales I need to accept these donations.

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  17. Hi, Brad,

    Thanks for the correction, and sorry for the error! I’ve updated the text of the post accordingly.

    I hope this works out for you financially—you’ve written elsewhere that’s it’s been difficult in the past year. There seems to be a “winner take all” dynamic in Buddhist teaching—the top dozen or so teachers make a lot of money, and everyone else struggles. Dunno if there’s anything that could be done about that.

    Best wishes,

    David

  18. Another interview on the Maha Teachers Conference, from Buddhist Geeks. The interviewee is one of the “next generation” teachers who participated. The part I found most interesting to the was the white-thread ceremony described at the end. This is not directly relevant to the Conference, but makes the point that such gatherings have a valuable function in creating connections.

    At the Buddhist Geeks Conference last week, I talked with another of the “next generation” teachers who was at the Maha Conference. It seemed from her description that it was largely boring and silly in the ways one might expect. She also said that the Maha organizers had to have their arms twisted to invite the “next gen” group in the first place. Apparently they had been planning to discuss “how do we pass the torch” without input from the pass-ees.

    In some ways, the Geeks conference was the anti-Maha-Teachers conference—although I imagine the Geek organizers would horrified to hear me say that. It was transparent (vs. secretive, even if perhaps unintentionally); extremely well-organized (vs. shambolic); had a nice age spectrum (vs. Boomers plus a token, separated next-gen group); professional (vs. politically correct); exciting and intellectually intense (vs. boring and psycho-blathery).

    Jack Kornfield, the main Maha organizer, showed up unexpectedly for one session of the Geeks conference. I wish he had stayed for more; it might have opened his eyes to new possibilities.

    I hope and expect the successful Geeks conference format will influence his next effort nonetheless.

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