“Nice” Buddhism

Consensus Western Buddhism is a religion of niceness.

Unfortunately, niceness does not define Buddhism, or have anything much to do with it. To give the impression that the Consensus is what Buddhism naturally should be, it has to suppress all alternatives (which are not about niceness).

Of course, the Consensus doesn’t describe itself as “nice.” Instead, it talks about peace, healing, sharing, caring, compassion, connection, concern, and ethics. Especially, it sells itself by implicitly claiming a monopoly on ethicalness. This is nonsense, for multiple reasons.

The hippies’ dilemma

The founders of the Consensus were ’60s hippies. The Consensus is based on the hippie ethos. In fact, it is a systematization of the hippie ethos—a conceptual framework for it.

The hippies rejected the ’50s system they grew up in, which was based on unquestioning respect for political and religious authority. But that left a vacuum, opening the door to a nihilistic void of dead-end drug use or mindless rage and rebellion.

What seemed to be needed was an alternative ethical framework; a positive vision which one could identify with and live by.

When things got ugly in the early ’70s, many hippies decamped for Asia, where the founders of the Consensus found Buddhism. Among other things, Buddhism seemed to offer an ethical system—one that seemed attractive, in some ways, at first.

So Consensus Buddhism consists mostly of ethics plus meditation. Meditation is hard, so for most Consensus Buddhists, ethics are probably the main draw.

Is this Buddhism, or Christianity?

Now the problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against.

So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with “nice” vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. Which is, roughly, “political correctness,” or the “green meme.”

This means Consensus Buddhism has more in common with progressive Christianity (Unitarian Universalism or Liberal Anglicanism) than it does with any form of Asian Buddhism. (Much of the ethical thinking that went into p.c. was done by liberal Christians. Socialism and psychotherapeutic ideology were other major sources.)

This similarity is at the level of fundamental principles and functions: the core engine, not the outer forms. Western Buddhism kept some traditional Buddhist mythology (in the same way liberal Christianity keeps some traditional mythology), but you aren’t expected to believe in it. It’s a bunch of “teaching stories,” not Truth.

Liberal Christians often do not believe in God, other than very abstractly maybe. They say that the important thing about Jesus is not his divinity, but his moral message.

Consensus Buddhists mostly don’t believe in Buddhas, either. The important thing is not enlightenment, but a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness.

We don’t need no stinkin’ system!

Consensus Buddhism is a framework, or container, to put ethics in. That’s something the hippies thought they needed, to replace the ’50s framework they rejected.

But younger generations mostly don’t want a framework. I, for example, share most (not quite all) of the values of political correctness. But I don’t feel any need to make an ideology out of it. I try to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and nothing more need be said. My ethics have almost nothing to do with my Buddhism.

I think this is why Consensus Buddhism is failing to reach the post-60s generations. (I have written about this on Approaching Aro, and on Meaningness, and will likely say more on this blog as well.)

Niceness sucks

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.

Exploiting ethical anxiety

There is a great hunger for ethical clarity—among young people as well as Boomers. Why?

Since 1960, half of Americans, and most Europeans, have abandoned traditional Christian ethics. We have entered an age of ethical ambiguity—and that is a good thing. Navigating ethical dilemmas without fixed rules is difficult, though.

Christianity deliberately promotes ethical anxiety. You are supposed to worry all the time about your own sinful nature, and the likelihood of eternal damnation. This is the religion’s main emotional hook.

Although practically no one really believes in damnation any more, the emotional undercurrent of ethical anxiety—”am I a good enough person?”—remains strong in our post-Christian culture. We have gotten rid of God but not Judgment. It’s just that the Judgement is self-judgement and social judgement, rather than Divine Judgement.

I think Consensus Buddhism appeals to, promotes, and exploits this anxiety. The subliminal message of much of its marketing is “if you belong to our religion, then you are allowed to feel you are ethical enough.”

I think ethical anxiety is entirely unnecessary and counter-productive. The question “am I good enough?” is self-centered and irrelevant. The valid ethical question is “what can I most usefully do in this situation?” Judgement is beside the point.

Buddhist membership as social signaling

Being seen as ethical is hugely valuable. We would rather have sex and do business with ethical people. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know how ethical people are; unethical people are motivated to hide that. You can only know for sure once it is too late.

That means we rely on indirect clues. People display various ethics-related traits as signaling devices. Religious observance is one of the most important of these. In past centuries, “he’s a good Christian, he goes to church every week” would be a strong recommendation either as a business partner or as a husband. (Even though going to church probably had near-zero correlation with ethical behavior in reality.)

It seems to me that this is one of the most important functions of Western Buddhism nowadays. For perhaps a majority of Western Buddhists, “I am a Buddhist” means “I am a good person; I am aligned with an ethics of caring; you can rely on me to be emotional supportive.” (In some circles, this is an essential part of courtship rituals.) It does not necessarily mean that you know anything about Buddhism except that it is the religion of niceness, nor that you actually do anything Buddhist.

This “I am a Buddhist, therefore a good person” line is sanctimonious, smarmy, snooty, superior, self-important, and self-aggrandizing.

It is majorly off-putting to many who are serious about ethics, and drives them away from Buddhism.

While I share most of the values of Consensus Buddhists, I am repulsed by their relationship with those values, and their flaunting of that relationship.

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48 Responses to “Nice” Buddhism

  1. Pingback: The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus: Overview | David Chapman at Wordpress

  2. Noah says:

    “Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated promise: ‘I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.’”
    Fucking yes.
    YES.
    SO amazing to finally hear other people saying these things.

    Niceness is like cooperative co-degradation. Okay, so that sounds redundant, but what I mean is that niceness seems like an unspoken agreement among people to spiral down and down and call it improvement.

    Because to Boomers, everything is completely relative, right? So that means that downward spirals of cooperative (self)destruction can be CALLED progress, development, improvement, etc., as long as that was the initial INTENTION – or, and this seems even crazier, as long as they can convince themselves that that was the initial intention.

    Because to Boomers INTENTION = RESULT…right?

    Wow. Is that it?

    The only way intention could equal result is if one were omnipotent…if one were GOD.

    Is that what Boomeritis is? A GOD delusion?

    Does every Boomer think that they are the one and only God???

    “A) Everything in the universe is God; B) I’m part of the universe…so C) I MUST BE GOD!!!
    If I’m God, then everything must be what I want it to be. Is it? Well, I’m sure as fuck going to SAY it is, because then I can continue to BE GOD!!!!!!!!!!!! WOOOOO DOGGIE!!!!! BEING GOD!!!! OH YEAH!!!!!”

    So Boomers have to constantly act as if everything is exactly how they want it so they can keep telling themselves that they (each, individually…somehow) are God. So does it start at Monist and end up at Dualist?

    “EVERYTHING IS GOD, so I AM GOD, but now I’ve decided that I’M THE ONLY GOD!”
    Spiritual coup d’etat.

    Sounds suspiciously like the Consensus Buddhist fuckers. “Buddhism should be egalitarian because we said so, and were in charge!”

    Goddamn Green Meme. Let’s get it, and take it’s shoes.

    Keep up the good work, David.

  3. Pingback: Brad Warner vs. The Maha Teachers | David Chapman at Wordpress

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  5. Marie Ramos says:

    Noah, you young squirt. What have you got against us aging boomers, eh????
    Just kidding … love it that you kids have spunk…

  6. Ann says:

    While I share most of the values of Consensus Buddhists, I am repulsed by their relationship with those values, and their flaunting of that relationship.”

    Never mind. When you get around to doing some actual Buddhist practice you’ll get over it.

  7. David says:

    Since niceness sucks, let me say that I am pretty sure I agree with Ann here. You are laboring under a multitude of false assumption regarding hippies, Boomers, Consensus Buddhism, Consensus Buddhism and Christianity, and especially ethics in Buddhism. “Since 1960, half of Americans . . . have abandoned traditional Christian ethics”? Must be a different American. Doesn’t sound like the one I live in.

    I don’t know if younger people have a real bone to pick with Boomers or not. I doubt that it’s a wide-spread feeling. I know for sure that many young people love our music, though. For instance, the twenty-something couple that live next door to me have a real thing for Pink Floyd. If they play “The Wall” full blast at 11:30 at night one more time, I’m gonna get . . . un-nice about it.

  8. @ Noah, thank you for your enthusiasm! The logic you lay out seems right; I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. One quibble: Ken Wilber sees Boomeritis as the enemy, not Boomers. Lots of Boomers don’t have Boomeritis, and lots of non-Boomers do. Perhaps his term “Boomeritis” is unfortunate for this reason.

    @ Ann, what information do you have about my practice? And how do you decide which practices are “actually” Buddhist?

    @ David, the “half” number might depend on how you define “traditional Christian ethics”. Way more than half of Americans consider themselves Christians, but my recollection is that no more than half call themselves “traditional”. Roughly half of Americans support gay marriage, which is a line-in-the-sand issue for traditional Christian ethics. Beyond that, I have read many laments by fundamentalist pastors saying that most of their flocks, who call themselves “conservative Christians”, ignore the Church’s ethical teachings most of the time. For example, they have premarital sex and don’t consider that a real sin.

    Regarding my multitude of false assumptions, I’d be happy to engage in a constructive discussion of them. I am writing in a big hurry here, being much less careful than usual, and I may well be overgeneralizing or just wrong. I’d like to correct such errors.

    I’m not promoting generational warfare. I’m pointing instead at implicit assumptions that, unnoticed, shape lives. Ken Wilber argues in Boomeritis that, statistically, the Baby Boom generation are particularly likely to have a “green” worldview and to be unable to see the limitations of that view, or alternatives to it. I think he’s right about that.

    What I hope to do is to help make the assumptions explicit, so that alternatives become visible.

  9. Andrew says:

    Thanks for holding the conversation, David. All of this is important work that needs to be done to deconstruct/construct a viable Buddhism for the West. Toes will get stepped on, and people will say embarrasing things they wish they could later retract, but hey, this process is messy. We just need to be Nice to oursleves and tell it like it is for us. Whenver we can, we can also be Nice to others, as long as we are speaking our truth.

    These are exciting times for Dharma in the West. We are finally having a critical re-evaluation of a lot of assumptions we and the tradition have made about Buddhism and how it will be incorporated into this culture.

    I believe this conversation will make it into the mainstream Buddhist press before too long. It is too central to the future of the tradition for it not to. The worry that a closed door meeting of Buddhist leaders will impose a top-down set of talking-points that will shut down the conversation is a non-starter. We have the internet, and we have you, and lots of other critical thinking people. We are not going back to the old ways.

    Everybody needs to Relax, but keep the passion up so we can keep our knives sharpened as we peel back all the unnecessary accretions and bullshit that has been layered onto the tradition. We all want this to happen, boomers and the rest. A few self-serving folks will always take advantage of the situation and monetize their involvement. That will never change.

    The main work is deciding what to adopt and what to discard. The discussion and the result of this process will be out front for all to see. We’re never going to have one voice of Buddhism, so get used to all the discourse. It’s always been this way. Just keep the passion on a slow boil. We don’t need unnecesasry heat, or we’ll cook the goose and lose the golden eggs.

    http://dharmasanctuary.org/

  10. Noah says:

    Yes, yes.
    Sorry.
    Please replace every “Boomer” in my post with “person suffering from Bommeritis”. I understand the difference now, I believe.

    “Lots of Boomers don’t have Boomeritis, and lots of non-Boomers do. Perhaps his term ‘Boomeritis’ is unfortunate for this reason.”

    Wilber labeled the disease that because many Boomers suffer from it, right? He named it after the place it showed up, not as a description of it, right? Like when they name a disease after the person in whom it was discovered. Like Lou Gehrig’s Disease, kinda.

    Alright. Got it, I think.


    MARIE – “What have you got against us aging boomers, eh????”

    Nothing. Sorry. I had conflated the idea of Boomers with the idea of Boomeritis. My apologies. Thanks for taking it lightly, and not defensively. My mistake. Those Boomeritis sufferers can take everything so defensively. ;)

    That said, I do wish you (collectively speaking) had taken the green meme’s shoes, way back when…after it had shown you folks to the forest.

    The forest has lots of great – and NECESSARY – things. But that green meme got weirdly mean. Not from its perspective, though.

    It never had to struggle. Not really. It lived out there in the countryside, surrounded – not too closely, mind you – by people sharing its skin color. But it wasn’t a farmer. Sure, it had a small garden with, you know, a tomato plant, er whatever, and some, like, lettuce, but the lettuce wasn’t really looking too great – all wilty and, man, SOMEBODY could do a little weeding, at least. Seriously.

    Maybe some mulch, maybe some, you know, actual WATERING.
    (ANY kind of actual up-keep to the world would be much appreciated, mean greenies. NOT JUST YOUR GREATLY GOOD INTENTIONS!!)

    You should have taken its shoes. You know, when you all sat down for a snack and to smoke a joint.

    It was all, “yeah, I’m going bare-bare footie”, whatever the hell that means. “Gotta connect with the energies, you know, of my ancestors, and like, open up my meridians, and really get IN TOUCH with the goddess patterns that Gaia PROVIDES (it would always get embarrassingly over-emphatic on certain words) for us! The ABUNDANCE!!!!”

    RIGHT THEN is when you should have taken its shoes. They were just sitting there, while it was going all “bare-bare footie”. Taken its shoes, its socks, its Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars, and its Nalgene bottle with the Ohm symbol stickers all over it…
    …and RUN THE HELL BACK TO THE CAR!

    “Where’s you ‘abundance’ NOW??!!”, you could have yelled joyously as you bounded through the forest with the stolen granola bars.

    It would have learned what a ghetto is, right there in its preciously abundant forest.
    - – - – - – - – - – - -

    People can’t understand the world for what it is unless they feel difficulty (emptiness), or at the very least, some CHALLENGES.
    When you set up a world that is supposed to minimize challenges through technology, while simultaneously setting up a world view (looking at YOU, green meme) that is a systematic denial of any challenges that DO creep through your boarder wall of technology — like PASSIONATE DISAGREEMENT — you screw yourself out of half of the picture – namely EMPTINESS. If I have to explain why emptiness is important to a bunch of Buddhists, I am lost for words.

    Stormy these days, folks, isn’t it?

  11. Enough with the Boomer Bashing. If I wanted to be snarky, I might ask when you Gen-Xers are ever going to outgrow adolescent rebellion.

    I have to say, I’ve practiced formally in Zen since the late 1980s, first with John Daido Loori and now with Susan Postal, and I don’t recognize this “nice” or “consensus” Buddhism you’re talking about. I see that kind of phoniness in the Bookstore Buddhists (including younger ones), but not so much in people who have been in formal practice for awhile. But maybe that’s a Zen thing. Daido in particular didn’t put up with “nice” for very long.

    You’re impressions of western Buddhism may very well be valid with that part of it with which you interact, but I submit there’s a lot going on that’s not on your radar.

  12. Hi, Barbara,

    Thanks for the comment; nice to see you here.

    On my following post, I ask for examples of Buddhisms that are neither traditional nor modern/consensus. Perhaps there, or here, you could point out the things I may have overlooked?

  13. David — I don’t like your categories. Western Buddhism is far more complex.

    I am writing a response to this post for my blog that I’ll probably have up tomorrow — don’t worry, it won’t be “nice” — but I reject your “traditional” vs. “modern/consensus” dichotomy.

    “Traditional” might apply to Buddhism as it is practice in ethnic Asian communities in the U.S. , but I’ll come back to that in a bit. Outside of those communities, I see many dharma centers and teachers with deep roots in Asian lineages, but with mostly non-ethnic-Asian members, Many of these groups practice rigorous and authentic dharma, but they are gradually adapting the practice to western lay life. I think it’s going to take a couple of generations of experiment and experience before we get the kinks worked out, but a start has been made. We can call this group the “gradualists.”

    The group you seem to describe as “modern/consensus” are what I call “Bookstore Buddhists.” This is a superficial practice, usually as part of some kind of positive psychology, self-improvement hygiene. Don’t blame us aging flower children for that, dear; look to Norman Vincent Peale. This group wouldn’t know dharma from spinach, and whether they’ve actually entered the stream is debatable.

    Then there are the secularists, most of whom learned everything they know about dharma from reading Stephen Batchelor and Sam Harris. There’s a lot of overlap between this group and the “BBs,” but they aren’t quite as “nice.”

    Going back to the “gradualists” — there’s not a lot of cohesion between dharma centers even within the same traditions, and pretty much none between traditions. The zennies and Tibetans are quite fragmented, and in some cases are barely on speaking terms (nobody talks to the New Kadampa people, for example). . The Nichiren Buddhists keep to themselves, and of course SGI has nothing to do with the priesthoods of either Nichiren Shu or Nichiren Shinshu. In the northwest U.S. and in some other urban centers, westerners are finally taking an interest in the Pure Land schools, mostly Jodo Shinshu. There’s even a couple of Tendai monasteries in the U.S. that nobody seems to even know about. And I’m talking about American-born, mostly non-ethnic-Asian Buddhists here.

    Within all those groups there is a HUGE diversity of understanding, attitudes, dedication. You simply cannot tar all of these sanghas with the same brush.

    And even the genuinely traditional Buddhist communities are becoming less “traditional.” One example that pops into mind is a Shingon congregation in Hawaii that has severed ties with the Japanese “mother temple” because it chose to do services in English and establish programs that would appeal to the young people in the community. And is this Shingon temple not “western” now?

    Your argument that all western Buddhists can be shoe-horned into only two categories is ridiculous.

  14. Pingback: Nice Buddhism & ethics: a reply | David Chapman at Wordpress

  15. Thank you very much for your blog post in reply. I’ve replied in turn.

    I didn’t say that there are only two categories of Western Buddhists. My point is exactly the opposite, that there are alternatives to both tradition and modernism. (I gave examples: Shambhala Training in its original form, and the Aro gTér.)

    However, the “Consensus establishment” has sought to marginalize those alternatives. This artificial, political imposition of two “legitimate” categories (traditional and modern) is what I object to.

    I agree that there is a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern Buddhism, with most organizations somewhere between the extremes. This is something my two pieces here have not mentioned, and perhaps should. Between the extremes, approaches are justified partly in terms of “that’s the way it’s always been” and partly in terms of modernist criteria such as rationality and social justice.

    What I’m advocating is approaches that are not somewhere inbetween traditional and modern, because they don’t justify themselves on either of those bases. Shambhala and Aro are examples.

    NKT is an interesting case; thanks for mentioning it. I don’t know enough to speak with confidence, but I gather Geshe Kelsang Gyatso partly presents it as “this is what Tsongkhapa really said, so it must be right”, and partly is explicitly adapting forms for Western consumption. If so, NKT is partly-traditional and partly modern, rather than neither.

    It is true that, as you point out, Buddhist organizations don’t talk to each other very much, which is too bad. (I think that the Maha Teachers Council and similar events are a good thing for promoting that.) But quite different groups share traditionalism as their justification, so they can be categorized together for that purpose (although they’d be categorized separately in terms of yana or culture of origin, for instance).

  16. Concensus is part of the Human nature, not sure how biological it is, but even biology changes, so, i’ll just say it’s part of the human nature, the most basic of that nature, animal like.

    Groups tend to find concensus. That validates constantly their identities and at the same time rejectes all others that don’t fit, again validating themselves. This is the base for prejudice. And every one tries to fit on those consensus. and those who don’t may even suffer from some sort of anxiety from not belonging.

    So, i don’t see this as a group characteristic, like the “Buddhist consensus”, but as an individual one. This is not a problem of some group, most part of humans function that way, this is a human issue. But concensus only create problems when they are totalitarian. But unfortunatly, most times they are, just because that is a confortable way to validate our ideology and individual/group identity. “I know the truth, so i don’t need to go anywhere else, the others are just stupid.” This is so confortable, nothing else is needed. How can we ask Humans not to be this way?
    Some buddhists think they are better than the rest of the world, but that’s just bullshit. In my Shangpa Kagyu temple there are some old practicioners, and i must tell you are absolutly right. That kindness looks so fake, and it proofs fake when “mostard gets to their nose”. We have all kinds of people, but generally the oldest practicioners validate newbies if they are kind, gentle,good, etc… They can even “punish you” if you don’t behave that way, or if you listen to some “profane music”… But i still love them all.

    That’s why in my opinion, most people in the world are fascists. People tend to fascism, and i think we can see some of that in politics nowadays, on the current economic crisis.

    These people disgust me, but this is an issue of mine, i’m dealing with it.

    Best regards

  17. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Agendas 3:15 to 4:00

  18. Sabio Lantz says:

    Excellent, instructive points. Thank you, David.

    I’d love when “Buddhism” is accompanied by adjectives (the more the better, in some cases). Doing so avoids misunderstandings and unnecessary triggering of negative emotions in readers.

    The obvious popular adjectives are by sect:
    – Vajrayana Buddhism
    – Zen Buddhism
    – Theravada Buddhism
    – Nichiren Buddhism
    etc.

    But many may complain that even those are too broad to allow for useful generalizations (depending on context). They may contend that meaningful dialogue needs to break down the various sub-sects of each of these and even specify where it is practiced and what point of history.

    I feel that whenever one talks about “Buddhism” without adjectives, one is either (A) preaching to the choir or (B) being prescriptive (“This is what Buddhism should be”) or (C) both.

    So, I am immediately attracted to your invention of “Consensus Buddhism” – an adjectival Buddhism. (smile) I envision a Venn Diagram with lots of different circles of Buddhists and your labeling some unique overlap of circles (in a certain period of time) as “Consensus Buddhism”.

    It seems you discuss Consensus Buddhism not so much as to describe it as real, intentional organization, but to show tendencies, trends, political tug and more. You seem to do it for therapeutic reasons. It is like you are saying, “We need to be aware and improve.”

    People can debate the reach of your categories, and the details of your criticisms, but it is so nice to see dialogue that gets away from talking about “Buddhism” in some meaningless broad way.

    That said, it seems to me you are calling for two different things:

    (1) A Federation of Buddhisms (FOBs).
    Instead of a ruling elite that stifles variety, you are encouraging freedom and differences in sects to sink or swim on their own. I think “Federalism”, as opposed to oligarchies or hegemonies, is a system that allows healthy growth in many fields science, politics and religion. I applaud this call from a very general perspective — even if I was not invested in the label “Buddhist”.

    (2) A Critique of Ideas in Many Buddhism
    You are simultaneously telling us the attributes you don’t want in your type of Buddhism and are suggesting people look at the short-comings in their Buddhism: “nice-ism”, ethical security-blankets, social signaling, sanctimonious self-importance and more.

    I think keeping your two correctives distinct is difficult but important. For the first you are requesting freedom, and people may feel that the prescriptive call of the second is suggesting your own favorite homogenous Buddhism — which you are not. But I would think a conversation would perhaps be more productive if it did not tackle both of these points at once.

  19. Hi Sabio,

    You have understood me correctly… despite the fact that, judging by reactions, I wrote exceptionally unclearly!

    Yes, the traditional/modernist divide (or spectrum) is found within every Buddhist sect. The “Consensus” is a loose political alliance of modernists within various sects.

    I think that you are right that I was trying to do too many things in one post, and that is a big part of why it has been misunderstood. Many of the specific, perhaps outrageous-sounding points about ethics, which I stated in a sentence or two, are summaries of what will be full pages over on the Meaningness site.

    The one word in your post I’m uncomfortable with is “federation”. As far as I understand it, that implies a degree of centralized authority that I would discourage.

  20. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Andrew

    Just keep the passion on a slow boil. We don’t need unnecessary heat, or we’ll cook the goose and lose the golden eggs.

    “Be a nice boy, Davie”. Wasn’t that ironic.
    I welcome vocal atheists, vocal Buddhists and others. Loud and clear — they give strength for those who can do little else.

  21. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ David Chapman

    Perhaps I used “federation” incorrectly. But what I meant was:

    Some states have a very strong central government and week subdivisions (states, provinces, prefectures…). Federalism is the system which emphasizes that states (individual Buddhist sects, by this analogy) should have most the power to experiment and be what they want to be while the central government only has central functions like defense and legal systems — or at least that was the way federalists intended it.

    So my point, is that we should not shoot for a homogenous whole but allow variety between states and encourage it so we get more spiritual laboratories.

    Sorry if I keep mixing the analogies.
    See wiki articles of federalism and federation — am I mistaken?

    Anyway, a separate post on each:
    (1) Preserving Variety
    (2) Caution Flags
    (3) Variety of Ethics
    would probably be clearer.
    I just happen to agree with you so it is easy for me to sort these out. If any of your partial discussions had pricked one of my sensitive buttons, I may not have heard as clearly.

  22. Mike says:

    I wish I’d kept a record of everything I’ve been told Buddhism is or isn’t over the years. It would make up a small book and undoubtedly confuse anyone who read it. Goodness knows what Gautama would have made of it.

    As for niceness, I don’t find I have the contempt for the word that seems now to be fashionable in some circles. Perhaps I had the wrong teachers. As I recall they were all rather nice and their teachings encouraged others to be nice too. I don’t remember any of them suggesting that niceness involved self-protection or overlooking bad behaviour in anybody, but it did involve basic good manners, common courtesy, respect, kindness, generosity, patience and other, no doubt dated, virtues.

    If niceness ‘sucks’ for Buddhists these days, what exactly is supposed to take its place? Nastiness? There certainly seems to be quite a bit of that around on Buddhist internet blogs, with some folk aggressively proclaiming and defending their own versions of what Buddhism is and isn’t, often being shamelessly rude to those whose opinions challenge their own.

    How does that Tibetan verse go? Ah yes. ‘Banish the one object of every blame.’

  23. Pamo says:

    Hi Mike,

    I agree, the semantics are difficult. I was thinking recently it would be unfortunate if being not nice were taken to mean being nasty. I agree with your implication that taking niceness to mean “basic good manners, common courtesy, respect, kindness, generosity, patience. . .” would mean ‘not nice’ implied ‘not those characteristics’.

    Possibly ‘nice’ has come to mean something different, fairly recently. It’s a kind of saccharinity I find problematic, and imply when I use ‘nice’ in this context. By that, I mean an unnecessary layer of twee-ification designed for protection from the real world (suffering, old age, death, the world not conforming to desires, and so on). That protective layer tends towards eternalism.

    Maybe there’s a word, or words, that fit better? What do you think?

    Rin’dzin

  24. Mike, thank you for your thoughtful comment. That’s a very helpful clarification.

    I definitely don’t want to promote hostility, aggression, or nastiness as the alternative to “niceness”! Writing in a hurry left my piece open to that misunderstanding.

    My teachers also stress the importance of courtesy, respect, kindness, generosity, patience and other “Victorian” virtues. In fact, that often seems to be the main thing they want to transmit. I do my best to live up to their advice.

    There are two things I wanted to criticize as “nice,” in this blog post. One is an artificial, self-protective avoidance of all disagreement.

    The other is the idea that “Buddhist ethics” and “political correctness” are the same thing.

  25. Mike says:

    David, thank you for clarifying your position. I don’t mix much with Buddhists these days but from what I’ve read while browsing Buddhist blogs I don’t think there’s much risk of western Buddhists avoiding disagreement any time soon! I can’t say I’ve noticed any tendency to political correctness but then I may just have been reading the wrong blogs. I hope I didn’t imply that you were personally hostile or aggressive towards others in your posts. I’ve always found you to be polite and courteous. However, I was sorry to see that some others have been less charitable towards you in the past few days.

    Rin’dzin, I guess we’re all guilty of hiding from the real world at times. Is this being twee? I think sometimes I might have fared better had I been more able to protect myself from ‘reality’ now and then. When I started out as a Buddhist I was always a bit jealous of other Buddhists who seemed to find everything about Buddhism perfectly blissful while for me practice generally felt like being stretched on the rack. There’s an English playwright called Dennis Potter who once said ‘Religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage.’ He wasn’t a Buddhist but I think I know what he meant.

  26. Pamo says:

    Hi Mike,

    I guess we’re all guilty of hiding from the real world at times. Is this being twee?

    I think not all hiding from the real world manifests in tweeness. But, being twee seems to me usually to involve some layer of pretence to avoid discomfort.

    Hiding is often a protective measure; but protection need not involve hiding. Protective boundaries are sometimes important and unavoidable in relationships, for example. But we don’t need to hide behind them.

    . . .always a bit jealous of other Buddhists who seemed to find everything about Buddhism perfectly blissful while for me practice generally felt like being stretched on the rack.

    I guess practice functions to help you change and that could be enjoyable or painful, depending on circumstances. At some point the bliss or the pain breaks down. As pure sensation, without conceptual rigmarole around them, they’re very closely connected. Dennis Potter is a wonderful example, I love his plays. I remember watching The Singing Detective in my teens: despite intense and prolonged pain, there was always some lightness and sense of humour present, in his writing and his life too.

    Rin’dzin

  27. Does Consensus Buddhism = Nice Buddhism? Re: Sabio’s observation that ‘“Federalism”. . . is a system that allows healthy growth in many fields science, politics and religion.’ I find Federalism an attractive notion simply because it is a structure that is intended to cope with diversity. However it sparks the question for me as to ‘What does Good look like?’ By that I mean to ask ‘If consensus/bookstore Buddhism is unattractive for the West as the sole lens through which Western Buddhism might be focussed, what is the attractive alternative; what shape and colour is it; how does this alternative function?’ Federalism makes sense between Nations or States because of geography. Different Buddhist traditions in the East have, broadly, become established within geographical territories. Sure, the Tibetan/Himalayan traditions aren’t *completely* identical with one another, but Tibet doesn’t also have an equal proportion of distinct and discrete Zen, Theravadan and other such traditions within its boundaries. It’s only the West where the whole range has dropped into the melting pot. Is Federalism preferable to Consensus? Or would it be better if there were no structure?

  28. Well, all Consensus Buddhism seems to be “nice”; there may well be “nice” forms of Buddhism that are out of the Consensus. I can’t think of one off-hand. Some individual Buddhists in other groups are “nice”—the “artificial Buddhist personality” syndrome, where you fake being calm and compassionate and wise all the time. (Brad Warner and Ngak’chang Rinpoche have similar criticisms of this.)

    The Consensus itself is a loose political alliance (consisting roughly of the VIPs at the recent Maha Teachers conference), a style of Buddhist presentation (nice, Californian, politically correct), and some shared doctrines (a particular interpretation of the Buddhist Modernism explained by McMahan.)

    The leaders of the Consensus have written many-to-most of the best-selling Buddhism books. So what I call “Consensus Buddhism” probably is roughly the same thing as what Barbara O’Brien calls “Bookstore Buddhism”; although I think part of her point is that you can’t “get” Buddhism from books. You need to practice, and you need to work with a teacher. “Bookstore Buddhism” might be what some call Shravakayana—those who hear/read the Dharma but don’t practice. In principle, you could hear and not practice non-Consensus Buddhism, but that’s probably rare. Non-Consensus forms of Buddhism are generally more demanding and practice-oriented.

    Regarding federalism:

    Generally, I think that dialog between different Buddhist traditions is valuable, and coordinating action where there are shared interests seems a good idea. I suspect the scope is limited, because different Buddhist traditions are so different. I think that preserving the diversity is hugely important, because we don’t know what is going to work in future, so it’s good to keep as many options available as possible. Later in this blog series, I will criticize the attempt to suppress the differences between Buddhisms in order to merge them into one big happy Consensus.

    Buddhist institutions are important, but I also don’t trust them. I followed Sabio’s suggestion to look up “Federation” and “Federalism” in the Wikipedia. I would oppose a Buddhist Federation: “a union of partially self-governing [groups] united by a central (federal) government”. If there is to be any general coordinating body—which might be a good thing, I don’t know—it ought to have zero governing power.

    Unless Buddhist politics changes dramatically in a way I don’t expect, federalism seems very unlikely. Even within the Consensus, there seems to be no appetite for a ruling body. The Consensus guys are p.c., which implies being anti-”authority”. They want to control rhetoric, not institutions. Control of discourse is the preferred late-20th-century form of power. (Michel Foucault said that…)

  29. First Buddhist: I’m more Buddhist than you.
    Second Buddhist: No, sir.
    First Buddhist: Yes, sir.
    Second Buddhist: No, sir.
    First Buddhist: You’re just an aging relic, self-satisfied, self-absorbed old person who likes Buddhism so you can feel good about yourself.
    Second Buddhist: You’re just a young punk who reads about Buddhism in a bookstore and tries to rebel against everything whether there’s a good reason or not.
    First Buddhist: Yada, yada, yada, Brad Warner, Noah Levine yada, yada, yada.
    Second Buddhist: Yada, yada, yada, Thich Nhaht Hanh, Dalai Lama,yada, yada, yada.

    Me: No egos to see here, move along now. These are the, ahem, enlightened folks. Keep it moving….

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  32. star says:

    I must hang out in all the wrong places. I’ve never met a “nice” Buddhist. It’s funny, really, how much [name a type of] Buddhist bashing I hear, yet I don’t recognize real people I’ve met in the descriptions of the “type”. Whether it’s Secular Buddhists who only get their understanding of Buddhism from Batchelor and Harris (as Barbara suggested the majority do), or Traditionalists who can’t understand metaphors at all, or Western Buddhists who want to tear the dharma apart, or “nice” Buddhists who are using their ethics as a shield, I haven’t encountered them.

    I do meet newcomers who are more concerned with whether they’ll damage their chances of a good rebirth by throwing out a Buddhist book that had coffee spilled over it than they are with larger ethics, but newcomers are expected to not quite get what it’s about, right? The practitioners I’ve encountered who have been at it for a couple of years or more seem to be naturally ethical people, sincerely interested in figuring out what the Buddha taught and how it fits their lives.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am really enjoying your posts, David. Please keep up the good work! But please also tell me where you are finding these “nice” Buddhists because, as I said, I must hang out in all the wrong places.

  33. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hello,

    What you describe here reminds me of something Prof. Reader and Tanabe described as Protestant Buddhism, which I wrote about here.

    http://japanlifeandreligion.com/2011/01/29/american-buddhism-equals-prostetant-buddhism/

    My experiences with Buddhism in Japan, through my wife, taught me a lot about not getting so hung about myself or “getting it right”. Simply put, it’s more about community, and respect for others than “true Buddhism”. You’re right about that sense of inferiority that people walk around with and the need to prove themselves to other Buddhists about how ethical they are. I’ve certainly done it a lot until I realized how annoying it was.

    P.S. A bit late to the party, but great post.

  34. Hi, Doug,

    Yes, I’ve written about Protestant Buddhism too.

    Community and respect for others sometimes seems to be lacking in American Buddhism—we could probably learn a lot about that from Japanese Buddhists, even if we think they “aren’t doing Buddhism right”!

    Cheers,

    David

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  38. David, I listened to both parts of your interview with Buddhist Geeks and loved it. There’s been something about American Buddhism thats rubbed me the wrong way since I started practicing and studying a decade ago, and I think you finally cleared it up for me. As I said on the BG site, I’ve got one or two small quibbles with you, like thinking mindfulness is actually critical to practice, but overall I agree with you. One thing that I don’t think you mentioned that I think is part of Boomerities Buddhism is the aversion to the idea that someone can actually be enlightened. Its always seemed insane to me, as if it can’t be done, why bother attempting it (seeing as acheiving enlightenment is the goal in Buddhism, such as it is)?

    Would it be fair to say that just about every well known teacher suffers Boomeritis? From what I know of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche he certainly didn’t, but most do, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Pema Chodron. It seems like the more scholarly the author, the less prone to Boomeritis they are.

  39. Hi, Frank,

    I posted a brief reply to your comment over on the Buddhist Geeks site.

    I have to admit I am agnostic about enlightenment. The epistemological problems seem daunting; how can I know whether it is possible? It’s worth working on even in the face of uncertainty.

    I used to be a scientist, and for many of the problems I worked on, there was no way to know whether a solution was possible. Most of them remain unsolved, actually; but since a solution would be so valuable, it still seems worth working on some of them.

    As for your last question: I didn’t know the answer, so I went and looked at the Amazon and Shambhala Sun lists of Buddhist bestsellers. And the answer is “Yes, the authors are all solidly Consensus” with the exception of Trungpa Rinpoche and perhaps S.T. Suzuki Roshi. (And those two barely make it into the bestseller lists now.)

  40. bliss2go says:

    Love this. That is all. :)

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  42. OMkara says:

    Yep! The Buddhist and Yoga scene (they over lap so I’m calling it 1 scene) in the West is very new age. And very Democrat. LOL. Very socially and politically liberal. Nothing wrong with that. But it has nothing to do with Yoga or Buddhism.

    Some Buddhist Yogi chick who writes for Huff Po said that the natural presidential candidate choice for “yogis” was Obama. Um, ok. Whatever. She also said it was a “dharmic duty” for American yogis to vote. Hey lady, whatever you say.

    During his first term Obama was pictured in padma-asana floating on a red, white and blue lotus on the back of YOGA Magazine which read “OMbama”.

    Americans crack me up!

  43. The ironic thing is that they are only ‘nice’ if you are also ‘nice’. As soon as one quotes from Suttas or tries to establish pure Dhamma without compromise with science, liberal politics, or the latest save-the-whatever movement, they pile on like football players and don’t let up until you gather up your robes and retreat to the safety of your monastery. I have routinely been beat up by the West Coast Buddhists for reminding them of things the Buddha said about Buddhism as a business. When will they get that authentic Buddhist culture sees this kind of attitude and behavior as bullshit?

  44. Venerable, thanks for the comment. Yes, this is my observation and experience also. The worldview makes a big fuss about being non-judgemental and inclusive, but when its fundamental dogmas are challenged, it often becomes highly aggressive in self-defense.

    It’s also somewhat shocking to me how little of traditional Buddhism, and scripture, many successful American Buddhist teachers know. They are genuinely unaware that much of what they teach was invented only a few decades ago, and originates in Western ideology, not Asian Buddhism.

    I am not a traditionalist, and disagree with much of what is in the suttas/sutras, but I think it’s important to know what I’m rejecting, and why!

  45. Ven. Thanissaro has written a deep analysis of the roots of this phenomenon in his essay “The Buddha via the Bible” in his book Head and Heart Together. Link: http://www.dhammatalks.org/Archive/Writings/Head&Heart.pdf

  46. Thank you very much indeed! That’s an outstanding essay. I have been much influenced by his previous, related work “Romancing the Buddha.” This one takes a deeper cut, even.

  47. Rob Njos says:

    mmm sometimes the sleazy-dripping niceness of buddhists does come across as pretty freakin creeepy…. its like robotic smiles and soft high-pitched voices that rabbit excessive lip-service to ethics, love, compassion, etc (and thereby implying that the deliverer of those concepts really does embody all of those qualities all of the time) constitutes being a beneficial, liberating force in the universe.
    Personally I’ve received far more benefit from people who spark me to question my own assumptions, challenge me to plunge into new terrain, and offer me the kind of support that inspires me to take full responsibility for my own well-being and liberation – and this really doesn’t necessarily come with a nice smile or an overdose of political-correctness. Real, effective Compassion is a broad spectrum that takes all kinds of characters in all kinds of situations.

    Having said that, there’s nothing like keeping intensely close quarters with a genuinely vicious, malicious psychopath to make one really appreciate the gooey-eyed sweetness-and-light people of this world.

  48. Roldan says:

    Since I’ve read Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape”, I’ve confirmed an old idea I had before: that we need no religion – especially an organized one – telling me what is or not good behavior. There’s a scientific approach to that! Well, there’s long been, actually. Just take a look at the Kalama Sutta…. Anyways, this pinky fairy Dharma happens a lot not just with Buddhism. Here in Brazil it’s worse, because of so many primitive religions and superstitious beliefs still very present here…

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