One Dharma. Whose?

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism is a manifesto of Consensus Buddhism.

It is also an introduction to Buddhism, and a practice manual; but I am interested only in the manifesto aspect. This is not a review; I am not concerned with evaluating the book as something that might be useful to someone now. Rather, I treat it as a historical document. Its significance is as a chess-move in the political program of a movement that is now—I hope—over. (And, as it was published ten years ago, Goldstein’s own view has probably evolved since.)

Introducing the cast

One Dharma is an oddly incoherent book. It is written in three different voices, with quite different agendas.

Most of the book is a practical introduction to Consensus Buddhism (which Goldstein calls “One Dharma”), written for beginners. Its author is a warm, wise, mature mentor. I’ll call him “Goldstein.” Goldstein’s excellence as a meditation teacher shows clearly, and I like and respect him, although the Buddhism he teaches does not appeal to me.

The book’s Introduction is a manifesto, proclaiming a political dogma. Its audience seems to be American teachers of Buddhism. I’ll call the booming, triumphant voice of its author “Goldstein.” I don’t care for him much.

The third voice, “joseph,” is prone to confusion, anxiety, and doubt. He is honest about not being able to make sense of Buddhism—unlike Goldstein—and that is to his credit. His audience is probably just the author himself; it’s not clear what use joseph could be to anyone else.

This combination makes the book pretty incoherent. I would like to write about just Goldstein’s manifesto. Unfortunately, it is impossible to completely separate it from the other two threads.

The frame-story

One Dharma’s first chapter tells a story that encapsulates the book’s message, its virtues, and its failings. It is the tale of how the book came to be.

An existential crisis

This frame-story is set in 1992, at Dai Bosatsu Monastery in New York. There, joseph is on a two-month group retreat with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher of his friend Lama Surya Das.

As the story opens, joseph is having an existential crisis. Rinpoche said something that seems right to joseph, but that contradicts the Theravada Buddhism he had practiced for 25 years.

For more than a month, joseph agonizes in meditation. He is “impaled on the sharp horns of a spiritual dilemma”: “Which is right?” and “How could I know?” “I felt as though I had swallowed a red-hot iron ball that I could neither digest nor expel.” (p. 9; all page numbers are from the Kindle edition.)

Revelation at Dai Bosatsu

At long last, Goldstein has a revelation. He realizes that he can “embrace a variety of perspectives, seeing the different views and methods as skillful means for liberation, rather than as the statements of absolute truth… For each of us at different times, different traditions, philosophical constructs, and methods may serve us, either because of temperament, background, or capacities (p.11)… The highest teaching is not one view or another, but what actually works for each of us at any given time. If we understand the various points of view as different skillful means to liberate our minds, then we can actually use each of them to complement each other, rather than seeing them in opposition. (p. 190)”

Both Goldstein and some reviewers of One Dharma suggest that this is a unique American pragmatism. It is the “can do, whatever works” attitude that made America great, and is the particularly American contribution to the development of Buddhism.

I greatly admire that American spirit, but Goldstein’s realization is actually one of the most basic teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It is particularly emphasized in the Nyingma school, to which Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche belonged. (Perhaps that is not a coincidence.)

According to the Nyingma, any Buddhist may practice several different yanas. Each yana is a complete system that can stand alone, and the views of the different yanas directly contradict each other. Yet each may also be most useful in particular circumstances. It is best to view them as varying methods, not absolute truths. In Goldstein’s words: “If we hold metaphysical views (metaphysics being that branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality) as statements of truth, conflict is inevitable, as we have seen in religious and ideological wars throughout history.” (p. 12)

In order to skillfully choose which yana to apply at a particular time, you must understand the differing fundamental principles of each one, how the practices of each yana flow from its principles, how and why these principles and practices contradict. Most of all, what each yana is good for: its “base” (the circumstances where it applies) and its “result” (where it can take you).

This critical point—when to apply which approach—is one Goldstein shows no understanding of.

The birth of a monster

Instead, at this moment in the story, the monster Goldstein bursts forth from Goldstein’s chest, spraying gore, and declares “We seek peaceful coexistence.” By which, of course, he means assimilation and domination of alternatives.

Completely ignoring Goldstein’s insight that different views and practices are valuable in different circumstances, Goldstein proclaims the One Dharma, which “is just this: experiencing the essential point common to all the teachings.” (p. 13) Goldstein’s multiplicity of methods has been supplanted by Goldstein’s single essential point.

And what is that? “In the One Dharma of emerging Western Buddhism, the method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion, the essence is wisdom.” (p. 13; italics in the original)

Immediately Goldstein replaces the powerful, specific, contradictory logics of the various yanas with abstract platitudes. Who could object to mindfulness, compassion, or wisdom? Yet how could such billowy clichés do any work in a tight spot?

It’s telling that joseph never gives us a clear explanation of what Nyoshul Khen’s contradiction was. All that matters to his story is that there was some contradiction—a circumstance that reduced him to helpless suffering. Perhaps Goldstein could have explored the specifics of the problem, but he got exploded before he had a chance. For Goldstein, the difficulty is invisible, because in One Dharma all contradictions are simply ignored.

That’s the end of the frame-story, and of the first chapter.

The manifesto

Goldstein’s manifesto is in the Introduction, before the first chapter.

I call it a “manifesto” partly because it sketches a political program, and partly for Goldstein’s grandiose language:

We are living in remarkable times. A genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth. (p. 1)

Beneath the differences of method and philosophy, there is a deep common vein of liberating wisdom that runs through all the lineages of Buddhism. Increased mutual understanding is slowly creating the rich and subtle tapestry of One Dharma. (p. 6)

Emerging from the fertile interaction of these ancient teachings is what we can now begin to call Western Buddhism. Not bound by Asian cultural constraints and strengthened by a society that encourages investigation, we are willing to take what is useful and beneficial from different traditions and add it to our own practice experience. (p. 2)

The implications of One Dharma for both Buddhism and our own culture are enormous. A wise cross-fertilization of spiritual practices can only deepen and broaden our understanding. It will foster not only tolerance, but also genuine respect and unity, as we each find from the great treasure-house of Dharma those teachings that benefit both ourselves and others. (p. 6)

This grandiosity is strangely intermittent. In fact, the Introduction is an argument among Goldstein, Goldstein, and joseph. Or, not actually an argument, because they simply talk past each other, without noticing that they have totally contradictory opinions.

joseph, worried, asks:

As old traditions meet in new ways, pressing questions arise. Is the melting-pot approach simply creating a big mess in which essential teachings of a tradition are lost? Or is something new emerging that will revitalize dharma practice for us all? Will it be possible to preserve the integrity of each of these distinct cultures of awakening, even as we nurture the enrichment that comes from their contact with each other? And do we sometimes water down—or leave behind—the essence of the teachings simply because they take us out of our Western physical or psychological comfort zone? How much can we pare away or alter before we start missing the point of it all? (p. 3)

These are, indeed, pressing questions—but One Dharma never addresses them. Instead, Goldstein describes the book as:

…an inquiry born from my own meditation practice and from a compelling interest in understanding—and realizing—the essence of freedom… The investigation of these questions requires great humility. When we step outside the safe bounds of the various individual traditions, each consistent within itself, we need to acknowledge the exploratory nature of a unified theory of Dharma… (pp. 3-4)

So what we have here is not exactly a manifesto, but the author dithering in public about whether he agrees with the manifesto he is mostly failing to write.

Whose Dharma?

In Western Buddhism, according to Goldstein, “we are willing to take what is useful and beneficial from different traditions.” (p. 2) But who decides what is beneficial and useful? What is irrelevant Asian cultural junk, and what is outright wrong? Goldstein frames the problem nicely:

Who or what constitutes ultimate spiritual authority? Is it a person at the top of a religious hierarchy or one’s own teacher? Is it the remembered words of the spiritual founder? Is it a democratic group process that decides what is true? Or is it left to each individual? These are not easy questions, and we find them alive and well in contemporary Buddhist communities. (p. 22)

Goldstein gives no explicit answer. He points out that:

The discipline of awakening is not a democratic process. In a monastery or retreat center we don’t vote on the hour of the wake-up bell or the meditation instructions given in interviews. We rely on the wisdom of the teacher. (p. 22)

On the other hand,

There is usually some mixture of wisdom and ignorance in those who are teaching. Someone may have profound insight in some areas and be immature in others… So there may be some value in relying on the group wisdom as well. (p. 22)

Together with his emphasis on an emerging consensus, this suggests that he believed authority should be given to the leading Western Buddhist teachers as a group. Collectively, they were co-creating Western Buddhism, and students can tag along. This is consonant also with his role in organizing (with Jack Kornfield and Lama Surya Das) the series of Western Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences.

Goldstein seems to have a different answer. “One Dharma” is his personal product. He uses the term as a brand name—you can almost see the trademark symbol—for the specific system he constructed:

When I am on retreat, I begin each day with a One Dharma ritual of prayer beginning with the Three Refuges in Pali and the Tibetan version of the Refuges… (p. 50)

One Dharma has its own doctrines, attitudes, practices, and liturgy, all defined by Goldstein.

This is a weak position. It invites questions like “why should we listen to you?” and “how do you know?” Maybe it is because Goldstein has no good answers that his voice is suppressed for most of the book.

Goldstein’s vague collectivism deflects such skepticism. “Everyone knows” that the Consensus view defines Western Buddhism, so no one needs to answer hard questions about whether it is right.

Which Dharma?

One Dharma, according to Goldstein, is a “unified theory of Dharma” (p. 4) based on the “deep common vein of liberating wisdom that runs through all the lineages of Buddhism” (p. 6). That is why One is in the title, and why the subtitle is “the emerging Western Buddhism.”

As [Buddhist] traditions moved across Asia into different cultures, they became more isolated from one another, and many of the differences hardened into their own traditional orthodoxies, often with sectarian overtones… Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of these great wisdom traditions.… This can be the great gift of our culture to the long historical sweep of the Buddha’s teachings. (p. 26)

I think this idea is factually wrong and politically oppressive.

Goldstein gives no reason to believe that the single, comprehensive Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of different Asian Buddhisms. That would make sense only if all the Asian Buddhisms had the same religious content, plus unnecessary added cultural nonsense that Westerners should drop. But in fact, the Asian Buddhisms have irreconcilably different core teachings. (This was the realization that sent joseph into shock. One Dharma is his antidote to that shock: pretending it isn’t so.)

In my view, there should not be one Western Buddhism. Inevitably, in fact, there will be many (or perhaps none). Some Western Buddhisms may be syntheses of multiple Asian traditions; others, not. (In fact, I’ll suggest that Goldstein’s own version is much less a synthesis than he believes.)

However, this “common core plus cultural accretions” model gave the Consensus the power to dominate American convert Buddhism for a couple of decades. It was the Consensus leaders who defined what the “essential core” of Buddhism was. That let them marginalize alternatives as obsolete traditions from quaint pre-modern cultures.

Goldstein is more honest about his starting point than Goldstein, and less ambitious. Not a unification of all Buddhisms, but:

I draw on aspects of three Buddhist traditions (Theravada, Tibetan, and Zen) while acknowledging that not only are there other schools of Buddhism, but even within these three, there is a great variety of lineages and sects. The criteria for reference and inclusion are simply the particular passions of my own spiritual journey: a long familiarity with Theravada teachings, the profound inspiration of a few remarkable Tibetan masters, and my great appreciation of Zen Buddhism’s direct pointing to the enlightened mind. (p. 4)

The versions of Theravada and Zen Goldstein draws on are the 20th century export products, which were devised in Asia specifically for Americans. These had already undergone a full century of Westernization before Goldstein’s generation encountered them. (I’ve written about this in several earlier posts, and will fill in some more details when I write the history of the hippie migration to India.)

So it is not surprising that these extensively-Westernized Buddhisms would be largely compatible. Anything that contradicted Western prejudices had already been removed for our convenience.

The issue of the Consensus’s relationship with Tibetan Buddhism is so complex that I’ll cover it in several later posts. Approximately, though, the “Tibetan” Buddhism Goldstein drew on was also an export product.

What Dharma?

Leaving aside its bizarre Introduction and first chapter, the rest of One Dharma is a pleasant introduction to Consensus Buddhism, written in the Goldstein voice. He says almost nothing explicitly about what One Dharma is. Instead, we get the life-story of Shakyamuni, a brief history of Buddhism, the Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind, the lay precepts, the paramitas, metta and compassion, the four foundations of mindfulness, Abhidharma, and so on. And so, most of the book is closely similar to other basic introductions to Buddhism, some of them written decades earlier.

So what, exactly, did Goldstein take from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism? And what did he choose to leave behind? How did he resolve their contradictions? Based on the Introduction, these would seem to be the key points he would want to explain; but he never does. Lacking a clear statement, we need to look at the details of what One Dharma teaches, and does not teach.

Not surprisingly, since Goldstein mainly studied modernized Theravada, that is the main source for One Dharma.

What he mostly omits from that tradition is renunciation. In an interview, he was asked what his current “edge” was; “the current challenge or evolutionary task you see in your own life.” He replied:

One edge is trying to explore what renunciation means as a layperson. Renunciation is one of the paramis of a buddha, and as a monastic, the whole form is set up for renunciation. As a layperson, it’s quite the opposite. And so just to see, OK, what could this mean, and how can I practice it?

It’s not just Goldstein; all Consensus Buddhism omits renunciation as a practice. Goldstein is unusual in even feeling he ought to attempt it. However, the Consensus is rooted in renunciate traditions, and it retains some of the renunciate conceptual framework. I’ll come back to this important inconsistency in later posts.

From Zen, Goldstein takes only the bodhisattva ideal and the paramitas. Apparently, these somehow contradict Theravada, and Goldstein had a breakthrough (p. 121-2) in which he understood how to reconcile this conflict. Unfortunately, I can’t follow his explanation. It sounds as though he simply understood and accepted an elementary Mahayana teaching. Perhaps I’m missing an important insight here because I know so little about Theravada.

One Dharma also incorporates only one teaching that Goldstein says he takes from Tibetan Buddhism. That is the statement that the nature of mind is “intrinsically empty, naturally radiant, and ceaselessly responsive” (p. 176ff). He calls this a Dzogchen view, as he encountered it in a supposedly-Dzogchen context. It can indeed be found in Dzogchen texts, but it’s not distinctively Dzogchen, or Tibetan. It’s standard Mahayana psychology.

It’s unclear what work, if any, this teaching does in the One Dharma system. In Vajrayana, there are specific meditation methods that work with these three qualities of mind; but those practices aren’t mentioned in One Dharma, which is 100% Vajrayana-free. So is this just attractive-sounding verbiage?

Goldstein covers the nature-of-mind teaching in a chapter on the meaning of Nirvana. As he points out, enlightenment is described quite differently in different Buddhisms, in ways that seem entirely contradictory. What are we to make of this? Goldstein recommends accepting all the different theories. That’s nice

But I find this discussion so abstract and vague as to be useless. The chapter describes joseph’s personal perplexity at contradictory theories, without coming to any conclusion. It’s not clear that any of these highfalutin’ concepts relates to anything real—in which case, who cares? Not Consensus Buddhism, which mostly abandoned enlightenment as a goal.

So: what is One Dharma? In sum: it’s 1960s export Theravada, minus renunciation, plus the paramitas.

(One Dharma is unusual, as a Consensus text, in mentioning only briefly political correctness and psychotherapy, which are other major additions in most Consensus strands. Goldstein is a bit conservative about this.)

Seeking a strong text

To argue against a system of ideas, it is best to analyze the strongest statement of the system. Ideally, you start from a founding manifesto, whose clear and inspiring explanations sparked a movement. Your analysis points to exactly where you think the author went wrong. Then readers can make an informed decision based on the best cases for and against.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a strong text for Consensus Buddhism. One Dharma is the best available. (The Open Letter from the 1993 Western Buddhist Teacher Conference is another candidate; I’ll analyze it in an upcoming post.)

Considered as a manifesto, there is consistently less to One Dharma than meets the eye. Repeatedly, Goldstein makes a big claim, but then there is no follow-through as Goldstein takes over. And joseph is always around plaintively pointing out that Goldstein is an emperor with no clothes.

This systematic refusal to clearly state and defend its ideas makes it difficult to argue with the Consensus. It’s so vague and weak-kneed. Consensus writing is like a hell-realm ocean of tapioca pudding. Countless damned souls, floating listlessly, suck up the soft, sweet, nearly-tasteless glop. Unable to see any shore, they ignore pleas to swim out. Life-rafts launched by would-be rescuers slowly sink into the unresisting sea.

Why? I do not altogether understand this. Presumably, avoidance of clear thought is a strategy to avoid confronting Consensus Buddhism’s internal contradictions, and the cognitive dissonance produced by its obvious conflicts with reality. Quite how that works, I haven’t figured out.

It’s worth noting, though, that many scholars have pointed out this same deliberate mushiness in the wider trend of which Consensus Buddhism is a part. That is, the “green meme” or “bourgeois bohemian (bobo)” or “consciousness” movement. All these terms name a closed world-view that sees itself as universal, but actually just refuses to recognize or seriously discuss alternatives.

Is there such a thing as Consensus Buddhism?

A common reaction of Consensus Buddhists to my discussion of Consensus Buddhism is to insist that there is no such thing. They say I am just describing the Buddhism of the ignorant—the introductory teachings “shared by all sects”—and I am overlooking the huge diversity of Western Buddhism. In that case, One Dharma is not the manifesto of a movement, but just one man’s description of his personal approach to spirituality. (Which is the way Goldstein presents it in some passages.)

Here I agree with Goldstein. There is such a thing as One Dharma, and he and his friends lead it. It has about a million faithful in the fold, and thousands of teachers. Some have a background in Theravada, some in Zen, some in Tibetan Buddhism, but they are all teaching much the same stuff.

Consensus Buddhism has its house presses (Tricycle, the Shambhala Sun, the major non-academic Buddhist book publishers); a powerful political establishment, extensive training programs, centers, and all the other apparatus of a major religion.

The historical inevitability of the Consensus

Goldstein calls One Dharma “inevitable,” and I quarreled with him about that above. But in a different sense, I think he was right. Consensus Buddhism is a spiritual expression of the broad and deep changes in culture, society, and consciousness that sprang from the 1960s youth movement. (The New Age is a parallel expression, and it is not surprising that there was substantial cross-over and similarity between them.) The Consensus took its skeleton from modernized export Buddhism, but much of the meat comes from the ideas and practices of late-20th century America.

One Dharma’s subtitle describes it as “the emerging Western Buddhism,” and Goldstein repeats the word “emerging” often. He implies that he is observing an organic, self-arising trend that even he cannot yet see clearly, but that will inevitably develop into a coherent, homogeneous Western Buddhism. (Goldstein, on the other hand, takes full credit for creation.)

One Dharma was published in 2002. Goldstein’s tentativeness is odd and ironic, since 2002 was the high point of the Consensus’s political domination. (The publication of Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen in 2003 marks the beginning of the end.)

As one review of One Dharma pointed out, “Rather than needing to argue polemically for his position, Goldstein simply announces with an almost-Marxist flourish that ‘Western Buddhism will inevitably be a synthesis of these great wisdom traditions. It is already happening.’ ” Hegemony was a fait accompli, which relieved Goldstein of the burden of supporting Goldstein’s claims.

Still, my impression is that Goldstein was not alone, among Consensus leaders in 2002, in being unaware of how completely they had succeeded. I suspect that is because they genuinely did not see themselves as creators. (This accounts for the peculiar alternation of Goldstein’s triumphalism and Goldstein’s modesty.) Insofar as the Consensus approach was historically inevitable, they indeed were not responsible.

The Consensus was driven by the teachers and the students of the Consensus leaders, as much as by the leaders themselves. Goldstein and the other leaders were, in part, simply surfing a wave, along for a ride on an incoming tide.

The Consensus was driven by the demands of bourgeois-bohemian baby boomers for a new spiritual system: one consistent with their broader ideology, that met their perceived emotional needs. That created an enormous pull in a particular direction. At times, you could feel the Consensus leaders’ frustration, as they tried to tug back, when bobo narcissism directly contradicted Buddhism. However, caught up in the bobo ideology themselves, the Consensus leaders mainly went with the flow.

The Consensus leaders were pushed, as well as pulled. Their religion was based on synthetic export Buddhisms created by Asian nationalists. Those teachers programmed the Consensus leaders with counter-missionary political agendas that are only now, decades later, becoming apparent. Those teachers were subtle and brilliant and held their cards close to their vests; and Goldstein and the others were manipulated and duped.

In 2002, the Consensus leaders were still looking deferentially over their shoulders at their Asian teachers, not noticing that in America they were already the establishment. Those teachers are now dead, and the Consensus leaders now understand that they are the elders. That implies responsibility to work out how to pass leadership to later generations.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to Naljorpa Ögyen Dorje for drawing my attention to One Dharma and sending me his own analysis of it. I’ve made substantial use of his ideas here.

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45 Responses to One Dharma. Whose?

  1. Jeff says:

    Another tempest in the frying pan of samsara. I’m embarrassed for all players in this drama.

  2. gottheo says:

    Tempests clear the air

  3. Garwang says:

    Dear David,

    Thanks for the most interesting historical treatise. I just want to mention that the link on the interview with Goldstein does not work.

    All the best,
    Garwang

  4. You portray it as a problem of all “Western Buddhism” but I still say that this is a USA-centric view, and largely an American problem. The leading teachers you associate with Consensus Buddhism all seem to be Americans, the books and publishers you cite all seem to be American. Goldstein is an American, writing for an American audience, addressing American concerns. Associated, as you say, with American pragmatism. I think you’re talking about the emerging American Buddhism, and/or American Consensus Buddhism. You almost acknowledge this in your last paragraph.

    If this is a problem that it goes beyond the USA, then you need to start citing examples from elsewhere.

    I agree however that one Western Buddhism is as unlikely as one Western culture or one Western language. “The West” is polyglot and heterogeneous. I really cannot see much more coalescence than has already happened being possible. I wonder if a Buddhism which embraces scientific materialism for instance could ever be reconciled with more traditional Buddhism? The Dalai Lama seems to take steps in that direction, but for every step west, he takes a jump to the east (let’s do the Time-Warp again,,,). Being “Western” in my view involves embracing European Enlightenment values (which according to Steven Pinker have done more for world peace than any religion!) and this seems to spell the end of Buddhism as we know it. When conjecture and refutation is the source of authority sacred cows get slaughtered!

    Your criticism that Goldstein makes big claims but does not deliver is not specific to him. It is the modus operandi of Buddhism generally. I know you know this, but you could have made more of it. And it’s not simply an American or even a “Western” thing. Buddhists texts are full of grandiose claims, ultra-ism, and what in hindsight looks like a deep inferiority complex. If Buddhism was a person one might suggest it’s behaviour is consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder i.e. “being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.” [Wiki]

    I think the lack of a “strong text” is a real weakness in your proposal. If there is a consensus but one can only see it by reading a wide range of texts with a particular hermeneutic then the obvious thing to do is question the assumptions involved in the hermeneutic. I’m not convinced that Goldstein is representative of anything, but then I’m looking at it through New Zealand eyes in Britain (which is nominally part of Europe), and I’m not interested in his books and have never read one. Maybe I’m too insular to see the pattern you see, but you should be able to convince me with evidence, and I remain unconvinced.

    Following on from your thoughts on the Baby Boomers, I wonder also if the idealised One Dharma represents a BabyBoomer longing for his childhood, for the American in the 1950s – when America was less obviously diverse? Europe by contrast has always been indissolubly diverse.

    All the best for the new year
    Jayarava

  5. jake says:

    Very interesting analysis David, thanks. All I can contribute at this point is that, from a first person anecdotal perspective as a thirty something American, I encounter this Consensus all.the.time ;-) So I see the evidence at least from the perspective of the trenches.

    I’m completing an undergraduate degree in integral psychology at a small liberal College, and I frequently encounter people who are “mindfulness instructors” and such— official representatives of the consensus, missionaries even. Regardless of their ostensible practice backgrounds– Theravada, Zen and Vajrayana (especially of the Shambalha variety) are the typical ones— they all present more or less the same “teaching” and show little understanding of or interest in the actual differences, in terms of views, methods, principles, between different traditions. There is a peculiar lack of understanding the principle of Yanas even in the ones with a supposedly Vajrayana background.

    There is also, as Daniel Ingram et al point out, a curious relationship to the notion of deep fundamental *change* or transformation arising from practice: it is assumed to be the case for the Big Consensus Stars, and yet equally assumed to be unrealistic in the case of everyone else (no enlightenment for the masses…), which makes sense if the Consensus leaders are actually practicing in a fairly hard core way in their own practices, yet going with the Bobo flow in what they teach and support and purvey, since this would probably make it unnecessary that the average “mindfulness instructor”, who has done a few eight day trainings and received the proper certifications, has actually practiced deeply. They may or may not have, but it certainly isn’t part of the job description, which also explains why so many of them seem woefully inept at guiding students who actually apply their methods and get into the sometimes challenging territory of deep practice.

    And finally I anecdotally note that any attempt to articulate differences between different Buddhisms, differences in method, view, and especially fruit, or any talk of any effects of practice besides “reduced stress” and the like, seems to be taboo, literally. There is a lot of uncomfortable, embarrassed-for-you-squirming, with the implication that the questioner clearly doesn’t understand Consensus Dharma (real, authentic Dharma…), in which anything beyond stress reduction is reserved for the elite, and differences are peripheral to the Core Teachings.

    The really troubling thing about this to me is the way these lower-tier emissaries or missionaries of Consensus Dharma often seem to relate to the movement’s leaders in an uncritically deferential way; the authority is clearly in the hierarchy and the fundamental texts, which is ironic given the ostensible authority of “personal experience”. It’s all very strange!

  6. Tranber says:

    I still don’t see well the matter with the “consensus” teachings. It’s not renunciation, fine, so what? It’s non-attachment instead. By the way, Theravada is not the tibetan hinayana, it has a wider scope and is fully adaptable to lay people.
    So, I’m not sure these posts are very useful, unless you propose an alternative, that means, more on transformation & tantra please! Via positiva if you wish :)

  7. jake says:

    @Tranbar: it’s true that hinayana and Theravada are different, and there are many forms of Theravada for that matter. But… I think it’s fair to say that Theravada IS a path of renunciation, in many senses.

    Historically there is a strong monastic element, and even in lay practice, a sense of ethics as renunciatory. Beyond that, both concentration and insight training in Theravada seem to be plugged into a renunciate view in a broad sense: concentration, in the Jhannic sense, definitely represents a movement away from form into ever increasingly rarefied formless strata of mind.

    But this is not enough. Insight in this tradition goes another step: beyond even the subtlest formless conditioned states there lies the Unconditioned, Nibbana. Nibbana is the complete opposite of “anything happening” in this view (there are less extreme versions, in which nibbana is just the cessation and eventual elimination of certain kinds of mental-emotional processes from the mind stream).

    The entire manifest Universe, all experience, is renounced in some sense. Nirvana and Samsara are unequivocally opposites. So what if practicing these methods, this renunciate View is inevitably carried along with it, if only implicitly? Or what is the relation of these methods to this view? It seems like an important question. I don’t know if this is what David is getting at or not, but that’s my two cents. There are some unresolved contradictions between the actual renunciate emphasis of these views and methods and the typical lifestyle and metaphysics of an American Bobo.

  8. @ Jayarava — Yes, you and others have convinced me that the Consensus is mostly found only in America. I am trying to be careful about that in my writing now.

    However, the Consensus has not been notified! Goldstein uses “Western” rather than “American” throughout his book, and this is standard among American Consensus leaders. I’ve just now gone through this post to check, and I’ve only used the word “Western” in a quotation or “indirect speech”, i.e. attributed to others; I have used “American” where I’m speaking for myself.

    You don’t have to do a close reading of any particular text to find the Consensus. You can just pick up any issue of the Shambhala Sun. I gather that that magazine is not readily available in the UK? It’s the Consensus house press, pretty much. They do publish some out-of-Consensus articles, from traditionalists… which reinforces the wrong idea that traditionalism is the only alternative to the Consensus. (Whether that is a deliberate strategy, I have no idea.)

    About diversity: interesting hypothesis. It’s worth noting that the Consensus constantly emphasizes the importance of its own (imagined) diversity—does that fit?

    Yes, grandiosity followed by lack of follow-through is a systematic Buddhist problem, found throughout scripture; and the European Enlightenment is pretty good at knocking such guff down. Hooray. Will anything be left once the silly stuff is removed? I think so—and will end this series with my guesses about what it might be.

    BTW, speaking of silly stuff, I got Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (which we discussed in passing a couple months ago) and skimmed it in the bath last night, since Damien Keown says it’s the authoritative source. It is useful as a scholarly source of historical information, but I found it bizarre. I couldn’t figure out what he thought he was doing. The material he discusses is often obviously wrong, and it seems like you have to take some sort of attitude to that. If you are a believer, then you try to rationalize and defend it, and excuse the parts you can’t defend. Otherwise, if you are a scholar looking in from the outside, you would want to explain how the wrong ideas function in social practice. But he doesn’t do either of those things. It seemed he’s a believer who is so embedded in the system that he’s able to blind himself to the idiocies, and sees no need to rationalize them.

    @ Jake — Thank you for the report from the trenches! And, yes, you’ve got an important part of the “residual renunciation” story there.

    @ Tranber — More on tantra & transformation coming up next, if my writing goes according to plan!

    Happy 2012, everyone!

  9. @Garwang — Thanks; I’ve fixed the link!

  10. Gottheo says:

    @Jayarava Attwood,

    The European Enlightenment and Secularism was by no means entirely benign and peaceful. It produced the French Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and worst of all, Marxism with its tens of millions of deaths.

  11. Hi David,

    I wonder if Goldstein talking about “Western Buddhism” is a bit like the “World Series of Baseball”. Every nation is parochial I guess.

    Shambala has a presence here, and Pema Chödrön is popular here. One of my friends has spent a couple of periods staying at Gampo Abbey. But they don’t have a major presence or influence. It’s not like the massive organisation in the USA. Trungpa, for all his faults, wrote some interesting books, and there are many aspects of Shamabala that sound good to me. I do see their magazine around, but I lost interest in reading popular Buddhist magazines some years ago.

    I find Peter Harvey a bit of a mystery as well. Perhaps the problem is that we haven’t really got critical Buddhism up to speed yet, and there are still a lot of sacred cows around?

  12. @Gottheo

    I never said the Enlightenment was entirely benign – though I think I agree with Pinker that violence has declined over all since the Enlightenment.

    The events you mention certainly came after the Enlightenment, as did everything in modern history, but you’d have stump up a lot of evidence to show a causal connection. To say for instance that the Enlightenment “produced the French ‘Terror’” is facile. The origins of the Terror can be found in the rejection of Enlightenment values as much as anything – in Rousseau et al.

    Whether Marxism, and it’s progeny Stalinism and Maoism, were products of the Enlightenment is very much a moot point.

  13. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Jake
    May I ask what type of Buddhism you practice and under what teacher(s)? You sound a little similar to David.

    @ David Chapman
    Fascinating post. Jayaravas objections were also informative. Discussing the three voices of the author was a fun and helpful device on many levels.

    I loved this summary:

    So: what is One Dharma? In sum: it’s 1960s export Theravada, minus renunciation, plus the paramitas.

    It helped me glue together some of your previous posts in my head.

    You said,

    “The issue of the Consensus’s relationship with Tibetan Buddhism is so complex that I’ll cover it in several later posts. Approximately, though, the “Tibetan” Buddhism Goldstein drew on was also an export product.”

    I am greatly looking forward to those posts to perhaps clear some muddle in my head.

    You were very much a tease when you casually referred (only by a link) to David Brooks work “Bobos in Paradise”(2000) which I had never heard of. I hope in another post you get a handle on the deep motivations of consensus makers — not just in terms of what drives their Buddhism, but how this phenomena is present in modern cultures in general. Understanding deep psychology shared between traditions, even when pathological, is highly instructive. Transcending the Buddhist dialogue would be fun.

    David, you said:

    Goldstein calls One Dharma “inevitable,” and I quarreled with him about that above.

    Sorry, did I miss it, but did you tell us when you actually had a personal encounter with Goldstein and how that went?

  14. jake says:

    @Sabio: the kind of contemplative practice to which I continually find myself returning is very similar to David’s, yes; namely Vajrayana. I have gone on some retreats with the Namkhai Norbu who has the Dzogchen Community and Ole Nydhal, a Dane who is a student of the 16th Karmapa, who has the Diamond Way community. I have also done some Vippassana meditation in the style of the pragmatic dharma scene, i.e., Dan Ingram, Kenneth Folk, etc.

    My nature is eclectic though and I sought these things out in order to, at fist, make sense of glimpses and spontaneous insights which just seem to have always been part of my experience (and later, to make sense of why there seemed to be such a gap between those glimpses and “my” ordinary dualistic modes of experience and action).

    I’m not much of a good “follower” although I admit that may be a blind spot; I do try to be respectful of the transmissions and practices which I’ve come in contact with. Both the Vajrayana teachers I mentioned are pretty open; they do not ask for exclusivity, nor do they require certain amounts or kinds of formal practice (some Vajrayana teachers require commitments to practice certain rituals a certain amount every day, or every X period of time, or whatever). I have a deep respect for the Aro teachings and teachers and find a lot of common ground with students of that work presumably due to shared proclivities and similar inspiration. I also have a deep attraction to Pure Land practice, Chan and Taoist traditions.

  15. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Jake
    Thank you, that was fascinating. Your comments make a lot of sense to me. I just did a little post illustrating my bookshelf and how I have made a jumble of Buddhism. David’s posts have helped me considerably.

  16. ‘Yet how could such billowy clichés do any work in a tight spot?’ Great sentence and have to agree. It reminds of how annoyed I can still get by people who are following the latest new-age craze when they spout, ‘All you need to do is smile/think positive/accept, etc, etc’. Since when has one or two simple one-liners ever solved the multitude of complexities that plague the human condition: grow up I say!
    I do agree with Jayarava about the rather USA-centric view and its definition as western Buddhism and am glad you are keeping an eye on this :) I am a Brit and personally have found more issue with the giving of importance and standing to exotic eastern teachers and western teachers by western students. I would say from experience that the consensus that I’ve constantly found in Tibetan Buddhist centers is that if the teacher’s Tibetan ‘he’ (almost always a he) must be authentic, and certainly better than any western teacher could ever be, and of course, much more realized.
    ‘All these terms name a closed world-view that sees itself as universal, but actually just refuses to recognize or seriously discuss alternatives.’ Great point and such an easy trap to fall into. I’ve been there myself! I think a willingness to explore one’s edge is key to staying fresh and alert to how things really are, along with a real dedication to exploring knowledge in a wide array of forms rather than in just a single field of interest. The instinct though to affirm your position through perceiving apparent support and agreement is incredibly strong. Mr Goldstein is obviously not immune.

  17. Csaba says:

    Hi David,

    Yeah I also noticed that what Jayarava has pointed out — your writings on Consensus seems to be about the American situation (while using the term “Western” at a lot of places).

    I wonder:

    - How conscious are you in setting the focus? Was this on intent or you just gravitated to the place with which you are most familiar / most concerned about?
    - Now that it came up, what’s your stance? Do you think the US is privileged in some way when discussing Western Buddhism?
    - How much do you think is it possible to generalize your analysis to “all-Western” level? How much perspective do you have on the situation in the non-US part of the world?
    - Do you plan to digress on non-US?
    - To what degree has the fact that you joined a tradition that came to life in (nominal ;)) Europe in its current form affected your focus / gravitational center?

    Happy new year,
    Csaba

  18. Matthew says:

    David

    Fantastic article.

    I have been following this issue from the time I read a “Conference Dharma” article (I think by Ngakma Shardrol?) back in the nineties or early days of the millennium. I have also paid close attention to many of the interesting authors and articles that appeared on the erstwhile site “Damtsig.” I am a big fan of your Lamas, and have been since I read “Rainbow of Liberated Energy” many years ago now. I follow the exploits of the Aro gang as best I can from an admiring distance as I am deeply committed to another lineage, but Ngakchang Rinpoche’s teachings were a clear and vibrant litmus used to asses my current teachers when I first met them.

    I became an admirer of your writing when I encountered your “Approaching Aro” blog, and I found them to be a refreshing and clear-headed refutation of some of the confusions and misunderstandings that had arisen about the work and activities of a tradition that I found to be not only inspiring, but also authentic. I had hitherto read on e-sangha and elsewhere the rather bitter and poorly realized criticism of the Aro ter, and was glad to find in your writings if not a bracing return-salvo then at least a cogent and jaunty exculpation.

    To the matter at hand. My mother (also a practicing Buddhist) has a copy of “One Dharma” on her bookshelves which I have thumbed through at some length over holiday visits and the like, and I have invariably been either perplexed or annoyed upon reading it. I think your article aptly gives shape and form to my inchoate instincts and I appreciate your having written it. I think Consensus Buddhism is not going anywhere. Rather, like an indigenous irregular army, it will continuously melt into the shadows when confronted by a superior force either of reason, experience or erudition, only to re-emerge whole-cloth when no-one is around to oppose it. I understand its fundamental impulse to arise from the rejection of what I will call, probably to the surcease of my credibility in the eyes of many, basic Buddhism. This basic Buddhism is nothing more than the world-view proposed by Shakyamuni Buddha unequivocally in the Sutras, as well as that reiterated many times in the Tantras (in my doxography this includes Dzogchen) and the great shastras and commentaries of the Indo-Tibetan tradition traditions. It includes teachings on karma (or as Ngakchang R. would have it, “perception-response”), continuity of consciousness and rebirth, realms of Samsaric discontent and pure-lands as experiential realities, and the rest of what is now sometimes disparagingly referred to as “supernatural Buddhism,” although in my view it is the apotheosis of the natural. In short, the view adumbrated in the four Noble Truths- that of Samsara and the possibility of its unraveling.

    The consensus mob, as well as the majority of the current western Zen lineage holders, Vipassanites, “Western” and “engaged” Buddhist Teachers, many Tibetan Buddhist hangers on without actual lineage, etc etc, all recoil at the acceptance of this basic Buddhist view, and then endlessly and in my opinion shamelessly manipulate Buddha’s potentially liberating teachings until rendered utterly otiose. From this naturalist/materialist prejudice, endless iterations of this taxidermy Buddhism have arisen and will continue to arise without need of a coordinating head like your GOLDSTEIN. (I call it taxidermic becasue it removes the heart, brain and guts and then replaces the teachings oh so gently on your mantle looking rather lifelike but in fact filled with inert sawdust or other filler.)

    With the ascendance of the premature and ill-considered triumphalism of the explanatory power of neuroscience, it seems that actual practice-based, authentic, liberation and enlightenment oriented Buddhism will soon be driven out of the public square, and the consensus view will have it’s hour. Buddhism will functionally become nothing more than a museum piece, although many may not realize this as they mindfully sip their chai lattes and plan their next mindfulness-based outing. Kaliyuga ho.

    One issue which I would like to touch upon is your use of the term renunciation. It seems your understanding and use of this term refers to the abandonment of things such as
    sense-enjoyments, a variety of social contexts and relationships, material possessions, and the like. It is in this context that the Aro tradition, which includes yourself, refers to its practice as “non-renunciate.” ( I have no sources to cite here, please correct me if I poorly state your position). In my view this makes perfect sense, and in this context all non-monastic vajrayana is this way. However, in many western traditions, the term “renunciation” is given a specific referent that is more precise than that given in the Aro techings, that is Samsara itself. We do not, as non-monastics in any case, renounce Brad Warner’s shibboleths of sex and chocolate. We DO renounce, or seek to be free from, the cycle of suffering arising from ignorance and karma. It is my clear understanding that this is also the intention of non-monastic Nyingma Lamas and yogis. Even the most non-referential Dzogchenpa abjures samsara and its miseries. So in this sense, any Buddhist that goes beyond the practices of accumulation of merit for the betterment of future rebirths is in fact as well as practice, a renunciate. Would you agree to this re-framing, or quarrel with it? I am interested in your perspective.

    Finally, I am baffled by and I think hostile to the suggestion that Buddhism is filled with “grandiosity followed by lack of follow-through.” Could you please give some clarifying examples? I would suggest that Buddha’s teaching is the world’s most spectacular example of follow-through ever presented, both philosophically and also practically. It would not be unlikely that I have misunderstood your intention here.

    @Jayarava will have to be responsible to his claim that this is “the modus operandi of Buddhism generally…. (snip)…. Buddhists texts are full of grandiose claims, ultra-ism, and what in hindsight looks like a deep inferiority complex. If Buddhism was a person one might suggest it’s behaviour is consistent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder i.e. “being excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.” [Wiki]”

    Mr Attwood, you mention that you know that Mr Chapman knows this, could you clarify for myself and any others that may not be aware of what this means? I find this to be a rather extraordinary claim. Thank you!

    All the best, and thank you for your time,

    Matthew

  19. Matthew says:

    Apologies to all. Due to my never having commented before, I did not realize that my paragraphs would be automatically removed.

    I now see why others used line breaks! Ugh. Sorry to make you wade through such a dense block of bloviation.

  20. I feel incredibly lucky to have such intelligent and engaging people commenting on my blog. Thank you all very much, and best wishes for the new year!

    @ Jayarava — Hmm, perhaps more context was missing here than I realized…

    The Shambhala Sun has relatively little connection with Shambhala Buddhism (the reformed version of the lineage founded by Trungpa Rinpoche). Formally, has no connection at all; it’s published by Shambhala Books, which has no official tie to Shambhala Buddhism. (There’s a somewhat complex historical connection, though.)

    Maybe Tricycle would have been the better example. Its editor, Helen Tworkov, was one of the major architects of the Consensus, although she’s not a teacher and didn’t write much, so most of her work was behind the scenes.

    Shambhala Sun used to be somewhat different, but at a certain point (1997ish?) they realized the Tricycle had come up with a killer commercial formula and was making tons of money, so they imitated that, and then went even further in the “lite” direction. “It’s become the People Magazine of Buddhism” was the standard reaction of their previous audience. (People in the US is equivalent to Hello in the UK.) In response to complaints, they started a new magazine called Buddhadharma, which was supposed to be for serious practitioners, but then commercial imperatives seem to have driven them in the same lite direction, and it’s fairly indistinguishable.

    All three of these magazines do publish some good stuff, of course.

    I’m not sure if you know who Joseph Goldstein is. I picked his book in lieu of a strong text because he’s one of the key leaders of the Consensus. He co-founded the Insight Meditation Society with Jack Kornfield. The IMS is probably the strongest Consensus institution, and is nearly solely responsible for bringing both serious vipassana and Mindfulness Lite™ to America. Goldstein really is a towering figure, and I respect him greatly for what he’s done (while disagreeing strongly about some things, of course).

    Pema Chödron is a sad case. She was the one I had in mind when I wrote about the Consensus leaders trying to drag narcissistic bobos back from the brink. I attended teachings with her before and after she became famous. What she wanted to teach was bodhisattvayana in the hard-edged style of her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa. The message is “your suffering is irrelevant and uninteresting. Forget about it; drop all concern with it, except to the extent that you must attend to it in order to function. What matters is relieving the suffering of others.”

    After she got famous, she acquired a huge audience of baby-boom women who heard her saying “I feel your pain; your complaints about the unfairness of life are transcendently valid; your suffering is noble; your neuroses define your true self, which is sacred.” This was seriously bizarre, since it was the opposite of what she was saying. For a few years after she got famous, I went to occasional teachings, partly out of the sick curiosity that makes you want to look at the carnage of a car crash. No matter how hard she tried to say “NO! That’s NOT what I’m saying—you’ve got it exactly backward”, her adoring audience ignored her words in order to hear what they wanted to be told.

    @ Sabio — The Bobos book is one of the major studies of baby-boomer culture, explaining why everything is now organic and fair-trade and has a picture of the Dalai Lama on it. There’s some useful insights in it, and some good jokes, although he also got some things quite wrong.

    Doing an general analysis of baby-boom culture is beyond my scope here. It’s true that you can’t fully understand Consensus Buddhism without understanding that background, but it’s too big a topic for me to take on now. Ken Wilber’s Boomeritis and the Bobo book are two good starting points (although both are also seriously flawed).

    One important thing is the way in which the green meme (boboism) relates to the American class system. Wilber talks about that very little; David Brooks talks about it a lot, but I think his analysis is mostly wrong. My perspective is closer to that of Slavoj Zizek. I do hope to do a post or two on this at some point. I think I understand some things about how Consensus Buddhism relates to social class that might be useful to the Consensus leaders (among others).

    Apropos Zizek, this lecture is highly relevant to bobos, why the Consensus is so appealing, fair-trade coffee, and the utter corrupt bogosity of “Buddhist ethics”:

    (Caveat: I do not agree with everything he says. But there’s mountains of insight there.)

    When I said “I quarreled with [Goldstein] about that above,” I meant “earlier in this post” and used the word “quarrel” in a slightly humorous sense. I’ve never met him, and I’m sure that if we did meet, we both would be entirely cordial.

    @ Matthew O’Connell — In my opinion, some white students of Tibetan Buddhism (who are not even accredited to teach) have both better conceptual understanding of the religion and more meditative accomplishment than some famous ethnically-Tibetan lamas.

    @ Csaba, and Jayarava and Matthew O’Connell — The reason I’m dissecting the American Consensus is that it actively impedes the development of the kinds of Buddhism I would like to see. I’m not writing about it because it’s wrong. (It’s much less wrong than most things, and anyway there’s way too many people being wrong to deal with all of them.)

    So, it would only be useful to extend the analysis beyond the US if there are modernist Buddhisms elsewhere that are similarly suppressing innovation.

    What do you think? Do you see that happening in the UK or Europe?

  21. Hi Matthew,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment! You posted it while I was working on my last reply, so when in that I referred to “Matthew” I meant “Matthew O’Connell”—I’ve fixed that now.

    WordPress wants you to put a blank line between paragraphs, but doesn’t tell you so. Sigh. I’ve fixed up your comment accordingly.

    For other readers: “Conference Dharma” article, by Lama Shardrol Du-Nyam Wangmo, was an account of her experience at the second in the series of Western Buddhist Teachers Conferences, which were the annual strategy session of the Consensus. They ran from 1993 for about ten years, and then after a gap another one—the “Maha Buddhist Teachers Conference”—was held last summer. That occasion convinced me that it was time to write about this stuff now.

    So, yes, “Conference Dharma” is on the same topic, nearly twenty years later. Much water has passed under the bridge…

    I liked what you said here:

    I think Consensus Buddhism is not going anywhere. Rather, like an indigenous irregular army, it will continuously melt into the shadows when confronted by a superior force either of reason, experience or erudition, only to re-emerge whole-cloth when no-one is around to oppose it.

    I hope you are wrong, however! And I am somewhat optimistic, based on the observation that the Consensus has little appeal for anyone born after 1970.

    Based what you said after that, I think your opposition to the Consensus and mine may have somewhat different roots. I may be mistaken, but it sounds like you are coming from a more traditional point of view than I do. I have a mostly-naturalistic worldview, and am not greatly bothered by the Consensus’ rejection of supernaturalism. I think we agree, though, that it has gutted Buddhism and stuffed it with sawdust (a lovely metaphor!). Perhaps your objection is more to the gutting, and mine to the sawdust! I want to see a vigorous Buddhism, one that could be somewhat scary, and that means that there has to be something with a kick inside. But if it’s a nuclear-powered cyborg, that’s OK with me.

    Regarding renunciation. Characteristic of Buddhist innovation, throughout history, has been re-using terms and concepts for new purposes. That maintains some continuity while allowing for change. What you say about alternative meanings for “renunciation” is an example. Trungpa Rinpoche once said something like “What we renounce in Tantra is anything that separates us from the world.” This is using “renunciation” to mean the opposite of what it means in Theravada, in which “renunciation” is all about separating yourself from the world. So, yes, what you say is perfectly accurate. Whether this form of rhetoric is useful in a Western context, I’m somewhat doubtful. It seems to be motivated by the need to maintain a pretense of tradition and continuity while actually doing something completely different.

    “Grandiosity followed by lack of follow-through”: I find this to be true of practically all of Buddhism, I’m afraid. Obviously, your perception is different! And perhaps this is why you oppose the Consensus because it rejects traditional teachings, whereas I oppose it because it is an impediment to innovation.

    (On this point, I think the view of the Aro Lamas is probably closer to yours than mine—although they aren’t traditionalists, quite, either.)

    I think I first articulated this theme when reading the Diamond Sutra. About 90% of the text consists of superlative-laden advertisements for itself. (That might be a slight exaggeration.) Apparently, hearing even a single line of the Diamond Sutra is far better than anything else you could possibly do.

    [Buddha speaking:] “Let me ask you Subhuti: If a person filled over ten thousand galaxies with the seven treasures for the purpose of compassion, charity, and giving alms, would this person not gain great merit and spread much happiness?”

    “Yes, Most Honored One. This person would gain great merit and spread much happiness…”

    The Buddha continued, “Then suppose another person understood only four lines of this Sutra, but nevertheless took it upon themselves to explain these lines to someone else. This person’s merit would be even greater than the other person’s. Why? Because all Buddhas and all the teachings and values of the highest, most fulfilled, most awakened minds arise from the teachings in this Sutra.”

    It goes on and on and on and on like that. To which my reply is:

    Yeah, OK, Gotama, whatever. Sorry about your narcissistic personality disorder there. Hope it works out well for you. If you ever want to get real, I might be able to help.

    Best wishes,

    David

  22. Greg says:

    I read One Dharma when it came out, a point at which I was relatively new to Buddhism. It struck me as schizophrenic and incoherent then, for all of the reasons you outline so well. Nice work.

    But a lot has changed since 2002. In my view the state of affairs that prevailed then was largely attributable to the fact that good and thorough information about the various Buddhist traditions–their histories, doctrinal evolution, and overall contexts–was much more difficult to come by. Academic sources of information were much more difficult to come by. The few people with traditional loci of power at their disposal–dharma centers, magazines, publishing houses–controlled the discourse entirely, whether they wanted to or not. All of that is different now, for reasons that have nothing to do with Brad Warner and everything to do with the mainstreaming and expansion of the internet.

    The Consensus, to the extent that there ever was one, no longer exists, except perhaps for people who have made only the slightest of efforts to inform themselves.

  23. Hi Greg, I hope you are right that it no longer exits! I certainly think its power is diminishing, at least.

    I agree that the internet has been hugely helpful in allowing a greater diversity of views to shape American Buddhism, and that this has been a major force in loosening things up.

  24. Namgyal says:

    Re: no consensus Buddhism in Britain.

    I think the absence of consensys Buddhism is about market size. A small market means there is both insufficient total demand, and insufficient confusion to provide a catalyst for someone to sell a solution to confusion. As an aside, we’re also pretty cynical about American spirituality (IMO) and Consensus Buddhism seems to spring from the States.

    By way of an analogy re: market size, in my little local supermarket they have two shelves of Oriental sauces. There are a couple of bottles of Thai stuff (single brand) and a range of sushi gear (from another single brand) and in a recent radical move some Indonesian stuff (from yet another single brand). Demand is so slight, that the supermarket only offers ‘Brand X or nothing’. People don’t buy it much, and if they develop a taste for it they have to track down a specialist store. In Britain you pretty much get the same thing in terms of Buddhism. For example, there is one organisation that represents the Sakya school, two that represent Bon etc. – it’s a small market – the shelves aren’t well stocked.

    Back on our supermarket shelves, go to the Netherlands, where there is a strong connection with Indonesia, and you find a whole range of subtly different branded Indonesian sauces, pastes, spices etc. Go to the US and if memory serves you’ll find whole stores covering the whole vista of Japanese cuisine, and realise that Japanese people don’t just subsist entirely on sushi (yes dear Brits – ’tis is true).

    I reckon that Western Buddhism (in the USA) is the America version of supermarket own brand pre-packed food. You know, the own brand stuff tends to be a bit cheaper, a bit blander, and it sits next to all the major brands in a prominent position on the supermarket shelves. If you like prepackaged food but are a bit uncertain; if the branded stuff looks a bit too pricey or specialised, or there is just too much choice; you can pick up the own brand stuff. You figure you can rely on it, because the brand is everywhere. There are 13 different brands who just do beans, and 30 different brands who just do cornflakes – Tesco/Asda/WallMart does it ALL with one consistent looking image. But, the supermarket can only sell own brand stuff when there is sufficient demand.

    Re:Triratna – that organisation doesn’t generally appear to be seen as a modernizing force in Britain – according to the folk I encounter who have encountered that organization but not stayed with it. American Western/Consensus Buddhism seems to actively brand itself as a modernizing body but perhaps struggles because it is still seeking an indentity and internal consistency. Triratna appears internally consistent, and has established itself as a tradition – and as a result comes across as such to people who encounter it. I don’t think it is easy for any organization to be a modernizing tradition – you can be one thing or the other.

  25. Matthew says:

    David

    “I hope you are wrong, however! And I am somewhat optimistic, based on the observation that the Consensus has little appeal for anyone born after 1970.”

    My main point is that what you are calling consensus Buddhism is only one ephemeral variant within a larger context that will inevitably produce similar confections if given the chance to express their algorithm. My view it that this is a naturally occurring formation that arises from our inability to accept basic Buddhist views.

    Formal “Consensus Buddhism” may be losing steam, but I have a group of Zen friends who all practice and are developing a version of it without any reference to Goldstein et al. Karma means that after you die, the things you did in your life affect others. Rebirth is psychological moment-to-moment re-arising of sense of self that ceases when the brain dies. The lineage masters who propound these views are wise elder who’s views are to be taken into account, but not more than that. It’s really up to the group, as all of our wisdom is more or less equal….BAM. A new head appears on the hydra. They all love Shantideva (a bit of the paramitas, anyone?) and Tantra is right out, as Tantra is rendered utterly nonsensical in a one life-time context. Dzogchen IS a complex and unnecessarily elaborate way of explaining zazen. Who are the lights by which this group navigates? Bit of Thich Nat Hanh, some Tulku Urgyen, Katagiri Roshi, Pema, the DL ( “the Big Boss). None of these teachers have the whole picture, so who decides which bit to pick and choose? the good-old collective wisdom of the Sangha. It’s A Western Buddhism, not THE western Buddhism, and yet it roughly conforms to the formula of consensus Dharma. There are as many flavors of this as there are family recipes for making jambalaya.
    Your views (and the opinions of most contributors here) are better elaborated than my off the cuff ramblings, but I’m sure you get the gist.

    “I may be mistaken, but it sounds like you are coming from a more traditional point of view than I do. I have a mostly-naturalistic worldview, and am not greatly bothered by the Consensus’ rejection of supernaturalism.”

    I think you are correct! I would love to develop the conversation on that topic sometime, but have no wish to hijack this discussion, which is very interesting in itself.

    Fantastic stuff on renunciation, I completely disagree! The Theravadins have the technology to become arhats, therefore they necessarily must develop “renunciation” or “definite emergence from Samsara.” The fact that they also renounce sex and material pleasures aka “the world” is simply their best take on how to achieve liberation. Tantrikas also develop the wish to be free from samsara, but have a radically different notion about how this is to be accomplished, and it seems they are not much moved to renounce the world, but rather they may let go of anything that separates them from it, like ignorance for example. Different move, same underlying view and intention. Renunciation (or Bodhicitta, renunciations more mature older sibling). therefore, NOT, in fact “actually doing something completely different.” My two cents

    ” “Grandiosity followed by lack of follow-through”: I find this to be true of practically all of Buddhism, I’m afraid. Obviously, your perception is different! And perhaps this is why you oppose the Consensus because it rejects traditional teachings, whereas I oppose it because it is an impediment to innovation.”

    I reject the consensus for a nearly comprehensive list of reasons, mainly because i think it takes the appearance in the world of a portal out of the matrix, but in actuality is just a paining of a door on a brick wall. Love that our views are different on this, that is a source of richness and discussion, I hope to carry on in future.

    “Apparently, hearing even a single line of the Diamond Sutra is far better than anything else you could possibly do.”

    How have you become so convinced this is not actually the case? LOVE to debate this one sometime! I do, however agree that there is a great deal of perhaps unnecessary repetition here. Hey, you know how texts from the fifties seem stilted and sometimes even bizarre in their mode of expression? This text is even older than THAT. We have to be prepared to cut at least a little slack…..

    “Yeah, OK, Gotama, whatever. Sorry about your narcissistic personality disorder there. Hope it works out well for you. If you ever want to get real, I might be able to help.”

    Seems unjustified and a bit sensationalist. I don’t believe this is your view. Am I wrong?
    Thanks for the opportunity for discussion, look forward to reading more of your stuff. You are certainly prolific, how do you turn out so much writing?

    Best,
    Matthew

  26. Matthew, thank you so much for your exuberant and courteous disagreement!

    I agree with your paragraph about “a larger context that will inevitably produce similar confections if given the chance”. This is the sense in which GOLDSTEIN was right that One Dharma was historically inevitable.

    My belief and hope is that the broader culture has shifted over the past thirty years, in ways that are gradual but profound. That means that organically-arising Buddhisms in the future may be different from the ones that arose organically in the 70s/80s/90s.

    Specifically, I think the modern era ended during that time. The core modernist assumptions are dissipating. This is more evident in the consciousness of younger people than older ones, naturally. I plan to write at length about the implications of this for Buddhism—but it’s a pretty tenuous theory.

    So I’m curious about the age range in the Zen group you mention. If they are in the 20s and 30s, that would be evidence against my hypothesis.

    Tantra is rendered utterly nonsensical in a one life-time context

    Can you explain? Tantra is supposed to bring enlightenment in this life; that’s one of its distinguishing features. I would have thought that Buddhists who don’t believe in rebirth would be more, not less, attracted to Tantra.

    Bit of Thich Nat Hanh, some Tulku Urgyen, Katagiri Roshi, Pema, the DL

    These are all popular with the canonical Consensus. Thich Nat Hahn and the Dalai Lama are actually architects of the Consensus. What makes you say that this group is not a prototypical example of the phenomenon? It’s typical for Consensus groups to lack an official link to the IMS and other Consensus institutions; the Consensus is kept together mainly by the power of discourse, not institutional authority.

    I agree that the Consensus is “a painting of a door on a brick wall”. (I love the vividness of your metaphors!) But, there are a zillion religions in the world, and I think nearly all of them are dead-ends. So, there’s no point writing a blog denouncing Zoroastrianism on the grounds that bathing in bull’s blood is not an efficacious practice.

    The important thing about Consensus Buddhism is that it is similar to something that actually works, and for that reason obscures it. [Or, at least, that I hope works!] That’s why it’s worth analyzing. Perhaps we agree about that?

    Where we may differ is that (putting words in your mouth) you are confident that traditional Buddhism works, and the Consensus obscures that. I hope that traditional Buddhism works for the people for whom it is accessible. But, I think it is inaccessible to most people now, and is becoming even less accessible as we move out of the modern world into a post-systems world. So, my hope is that some parts of what works in traditional Buddhism can be repackaged in a way that makes them accessible now. That’s what the Consensus tried to do for an earlier time, but it mostly got it wrong. Whether an alternate approach can work better now, I don’t know! But the Consensus is an impediment to the attempt.

    How have you become so convinced [the Diamond Sutra's claims are hype]?

    This is a burden-of-proof situation. I don’t need any reason to think the hype is empty bombast; advocates of the Sutra would need to provide evidence that it has some basis.

    Re my flippant remarks about the Buddha’s narcissism. What I was trying to do there was to break up the reflex assumption that any text that claims to be Buddhavacana should be accepted uncritically. Being shockingly rude might help in some cases.

    We don’t know who wrote the Diamond Sutra, but all Western historians agree that it has nothing to do with Gotama Buddha, and if he were able to read it, he wouldn’t recognize it as his teaching. For Theravadins, that’s reason enough to reject it. I give no a priori authority to Gotama, so for me what matters is what the text says, not where it came from.

    The Sutra is a summary of Prajnaparamita, which I think has some important insights. Whoever had those insights was brilliant, and I bow down constantly to her, him, it, or them. ["It" in case it was a naga, as claimed. Although nagas have sexes, so maybe that's wrong anyhow.]

    I think those insights are murky at best, and probably importantly wrong in the details. Reverence for Prajnaparamita as a received tradition makes it impossible to work out the details, sort out what’s right and what’s wrong, and repair or improve on what we’ve received.

    You are certainly prolific, how do you turn out so much writing?

    I feel just the opposite—I have a huge amount of material in various stages of draft writing, and am constantly frustrated that I have so little time to complete things. The holiday has given me time to finish off the One Dharma posts, which I started working on more than a year ago. And time to write excessively lengthy, and often ill-considered, replies to comments here.

    Am I allowed to say that I loathe Shantideva, or does that send me straight to hell?

  27. David, this is one of the best pieces I have ever read of yours. It is indeed inspiring to see you so inspired to write.

    I once asked Ngak’chang RInpoche about his teaching on the Yanas

    http://arobuddhism.org/audio-teachings/the-yanas.html

    that how from the view of principle and function the question of their apparant contradictions becomes moot, and certainly not the sound basis for holy wars and argumentativenes – I asked him whether that might be called “a view of views”, and he smiled and said “yes . . . but it’s not one that everyone might necessarily agree with”.

    I have to admit, even if it lumps me in with the ilk of the author you are demonizing here, that I was rather crestfallen that this *meta* view, this “view on views” couldn’t perhaps have some insight into the nature of things *as they are*, noting that “as it is” is the inner translation of the term “dharma” which is in this context seemingly more it’s outer sense as the “doctrine” of beliefs, the only context of dharma in which the question “whose dharma” has any relevance.

    Being a “meta” view has it’s advantages. When something is meta, it is at “the next level” of symbol and meaning, so it’s not longer in the system it is describing, which takes it out of the competitive fray and being compared to the views it is describing.

    But as Kurt Godel makes use of in his work on “Incompleteness” (noting that the translation of Dzogchen is sometimes given as “utter totality”), the problem with being at the next level is that there is always a next level, and no system of logic however thorough can be deemed complete because propositions can be formed within a system that could only be understood at an even higher level (apologies for my digression into mathematics)

    Perhaps more simply, these are all just views. The preceeding sentence itself being a view.

    Views are a fine thing, they can have principle and function, and they can be talked and debated about forever, dharma is – actually *as it is*, which seems to me to be something underneath / above / in no particular orientation to – every imaginable and debatable view of things as they are. It’s frustrating trying to talk about it, because all the discussions can do is spin more and more views upon things as they are.

  28. For this afternoon, my reassuring conceptual summation of the perfection of wisdom is:

    A view is by it’s *nature* completely incomplete, and incompletely complete.

    It’s kind of like mantra, because until the meaning becomes clear, it’s just a bunch of sounds, but when you understand – then – it’s just a bunch of sounds . . .

  29. de-lurking says:

    Dear David – Loving this brilliant blog! I do hope you’ll mold it into a book.

    Could you recommend some talks or writings by the early, hard-edged Pema you describe?

    2 recommendations for you:

    http://enlightenmentward.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/zizeks-cultural-capitalism-trungpas-concept-of-idiot-compassion-and-lifestyle-activists-massaging-conscience
    Trungpa and Zizek make for a fearsome combination! No boomer-coddling there!

    http://books.google.com/books?id=66nyz0LbeicC
    Dana L. Cloud, “Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetoric of Therapy”
    esp. “The New Age of Post-Marxism”

  30. Joop says:

    Is ‘Consensus’ only the buddhism in the USA (America without Canada)?
    Maybe it’s not dominant in Britain, but it is in other European countries, for example in mine (Netherlands), as an imitation of what happens in the USA, for example many US-teachers have been invited the ast decades.
    Still that is not my biggest problem. That problem is the growth of buddhism-lite and buddhism-very-light, in the form of mindfulness-meditation, as ‘invented’ by Kabat-Zinn, I sometime say to friend whom are giving mindfulness-lessons, they had to pay 1% of their income to a buddhism-fund. For in fact Kabat-Zinn and followers have stolen the Dhamma/Dharma from buddhism.
    Nearly all buddhist organisations (Tibetans, Zen, Theravada) say they are giving mindfulness, in a religion-free context. ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ is reduced to a secular onefold path.
    Maybe that a difference between Europe (or only: Netherlands) and the USA: religion itself is not popular here, much less popular then in the USA

    There is one other thing that is in common: the popularity of loving-kindness and especial compassion (metta and karuna in Pali); an ideal all religions have in common, as stated by the Dalai Lama and Karen Armstrong. My opinion about it: I’m trying to have both but still that is not a good development; ‘only compassion’ is also a REDUCTION of (for example buddhism) and denies differences between religions. And denies differences between different buddhisms. And reduction in fact never is OK, not in science and not in religions

    A question, David. Your choice is a Tantric Buddhism, free from the Consensus-dominance.
    Are there other choices too? For example: real Theravada, real Zen?
    My illusion is that such is possible, even if I don’t have perfect examples of it.

  31. Matthew says:

    Specifically, I think the modern era ended during that time. The core modernist assumptions are dissipating. This is more evident in the consciousness of younger people than older ones, naturally. I plan to write at length about the implications of this for Buddhism—but it’s a pretty tenuous theory.

    look forward to hearing more about it ….

    “So I’m curious about the age range in the Zen group you mention. If they are in the 20s and 30s, that would be evidence against my hypothesis.”

    They range from 29 to my age, 41 (ugh). most being in their mid-thirties.

    ” Tantra is supposed to bring enlightenment in this life; that’s one of its distinguishing features. I would have thought that Buddhists who don’t believe in rebirth would be more, not less, attracted to Tantra.”

    Tantra has within it the mechanisms that allow one to attain enlightenment in a single life if one is a very, very special practitioner. Few will actually accomplish this. If there is no rebirth, this is all just a tempest in a teapot in any case, as the real path to the end of suffering lies in waiting eighty years or so, Why practice tantra, a very demanding path, to attain “enlightenment” which will die with you, if all will attain liberation shortly in any case? it makes very little sense to me, and seems to be contradictory with the Dharma

    To be more clear, what I mean is that Tantric Buddhism is obviously set in the context that Buddha described, with realms and rebirth and the rest. From the Bardo Thodrol that teaches us how to navigate the intermediate state, to the descriptions of pure lands, powa and bringing the three bodies into the path of death, intermediate state, and rebirth in generation stage, I am certain there is no cogent argument to be made that Tantra is meaningful without rebirth. Even Dzogchen and Mahamudra represent pinnacle states at the highest end of Tantra, and cannot (generally) be generated without the supporting practices. There is no Dzogchen or Mahamudra without the vajraguru, and the vajraguru believes in samsara and all its depredations, at least if you are a Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug or Nyingma.

    “What makes you say that this group is not a prototypical example of the phenomenon? It’s typical for Consensus groups to lack an official link to the IMS and other Consensus institutions; the Consensus is kept together mainly by the power of discourse, not institutional authority.”

    I suppose my point here is that they have no pretentions about being a part of the development of a new tradition, an emerging Buddhism of the west that unifies these views, they simply find that their Dharma, which eschews tantra and the guru, vociferously disbelieves in traditional buddhist cosmology etc, is mirrored in these authors’ views (as they read them). This is what I mean about how this form of understanding being like a hydra, they have come up with this all on their own, it would seem, but it very closely mirrors the consensus.

    “The important thing about Consensus Buddhism is that it is similar to something that actually works, and for that reason obscures it. [Or, at least, that I hope works!] That’s why it’s worth analyzing. Perhaps we agree about that?”

    Strongly and emphatically agree. I do not debate with Mormons, their view does not purport to represent me, and I feel that is just keeps some lovely folks out of trouble, but the consensus types are very skilled in explaining to the world (and this is a world that WANTS to hear it) that there is no need to change their views, as it turns out Buddha’s definitive view just happens to be what they already believe! Wonder of wonders. I think it is this which will eventually completely undermine the possibility of liberation in this world, so I see it as the most salient threat to the Dharma.

    “Where we may differ is that (putting words in your mouth) you are confident that traditional Buddhism works, and the Consensus obscures that.”

    yes!

    “I hope that traditional Buddhism works for the people for whom it is accessible. But, I think it is inaccessible to most people now, and is becoming even less accessible as we move out of the modern world into a post-systems world. So, my hope is that some parts of what works in traditional Buddhism can be repackaged in a way that makes them accessible now. That’s what the Consensus tried to do for an earlier time, but it mostly got it wrong. Whether an alternate approach can work better now, I don’t know! But the Consensus is an impediment to the attempt.”

    Well… also yes. I am very much a trad Buddhist, but all agree that the Dharma needs to be re-invented for every age, every culture. The giant and exceedingly joyful task set tho this generation is figuring out how this is best accomplished, and it is for this reason I applaud and deeply enjoy your blogs. The danger lies in the possibility that in our rush to re-present, we will lose the baby with the bathwater. My concern is that many people want to reject the traditional beliefs of the path becasue they do not accord with their prejudices, but that without these beliefs, liberation recedes. So I have no problem with a nuclear cyborg, provocative language, new forms, the google, or that noisy music that he kids are all dancing to, my problem is with a non-functional path that fails to catch the fire of the previous generation, so that the torch can be passed as we fade.

    “This is a burden-of-proof situation. I don’t need any reason to think the hype is empty bombast; advocates of the Sutra would need to provide evidence that it has some basis.”

    Since we are in the realm of the subjective, this will be difficult to prove if you reject it at the outset, no? I can prove that leptons exist, but first you will have to study math and physics for 15 years. Otherwise they will remain an article of faith for you. I think I can prove that these claims are accurate, but one would have to be willing to investigate deeply. my sense from your tone is that for you, this case is closed.

    “Re my flippant remarks about the Buddha’s narcissism. What I was trying to do there was to break up the reflex assumption that any text that claims to be Buddhavacana should be accepted uncritically. Being shockingly rude might help in some cases.”

    Did it actually claim that? I missed that in the text. Your writings evince a strong interest in finding the middle between extreme positions, but it seems that for you on this issue that it is either deductive proof straightforwardly presented or the sneer. Mind you, I have no problem with rudeness, I actually enjoy it. I just don’t think the position is well-examined.

    “We don’t know who wrote the Diamond Sutra, but all Western historians agree that it has nothing to do with Gotama Buddha, and if he were able to read it, he wouldn’t recognize it as his teaching.”

    Really?!? That’s amazing! Could you give me some direction about how to find out more about that? I do not know a great deal about the Diamond Sutra, I would love to know more. It wouldn’t matter to me in either case what historians would say about it, it’s only relevant from one particular point of view, and that is one I generally don’t share. For more interesting info on this position, I highly recommend this interesting article on a blog I really like (@http://approachingaro.org/visionary-and-objective-history). Its worth reading!

    “I feel just the opposite—I have a huge amount of material in various stages of draft writing, and am constantly frustrated that I have so little time to complete things.”

    Urgh. Me too. The difference is, you actually publish a great deal somehow. anyway, kudos.

    “Am I allowed to say that I loathe Shantideva, or does that send me straight to hell?”

    HATE SHANTIDEVA?! Sir, you have gone mad.

    ok, I jest. I scarcely think I will get anywhere threatening the likes of you with a fiery afterlife, so I will admit I have no idea, but it will definitely send you to a resembling-hell known as “Land-of Those-who-Mistake-the Spectacular-for-the-Irritating.” You will be joined there by those who hate Thelonious Monk and Dostoyevsky. Enjoy.

    Please give a few words: WHY loathe Shantideva?

    cheers

  32. @ de-lurking — Thanks for the recommendations!

    Could you recommend some talks or writings by the early, hard-edged Pema you describe?

    I’d probably recommend instead going to her source, Trungpa Rinpoche’s Mahayana teachings on lojong, tonglen, and so forth. I’m afraid I don’t recall offhand which of his book(s) cover that. His Mahayana Seminary talk transcripts would probably also be good; I’m not sure whether they are publicly available at this point, though. (And I haven’t looked at them in 15 years.)

    @ Joop – Wow, that sounds dire—worse than the situation in the US. There are plenty of “traditional” Buddhist groups here, from a wide variety of Asian Buddhisms. Generally, the scene is polarized between the traditionals and the Consensus. With the partial exception of Shambhala, I can’t think of any large non-Consensus Buddhist modernist groups.

    Are there other choices too? For example: real Theravada, real Zen? My illusion is that such is possible, even if I don’t have perfect examples of it.

    I would usually avoid the word “real” when talking about religious sects.

    In the US, there are definitely “traditional” Theravada and Zen groups for white people. In both cases these “traditions” mostly go back only to the late 1800s or early 1900s. (Their teachers mostly do not realize that.) So you get your choice of 100-year-old or 25-year-old versions.

    There are also Asian immigrants practicing in ways that are probably a lot older, and that don’t appeal to white people at all. If you visit a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple in San Francisco, it’s real clear why there’s only Chinese people worshiping there.

    @ Matthew — Hmm, 30-somethings, eh? Laggards still stuck in the modern era, maybe :-)

    I suppose my point here is that they have no pretentions about being a part of the development of a new tradition, an emerging Buddhism of the west that unifies these views

    Ah, yes. I think that’s the conceit of the Boomers who created the new tradition. For 30-somethings, it’s the received view, and taken for granted.

    they have come up with this all on their own

    But you said that they read Thich Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and so on? If so, that’s probably where they got it…

    Tantra has within it the mechanisms that allow one to attain enlightenment in a single life if one is a very, very special practitioner. Few will actually accomplish this.

    There are benefits to be had in this life, even short of enlightenment…

    The danger lies in the possibility that in our rush to re-present, we will lose the baby with the bathwater.

    Absolutely. We agree that the Consensus did that. The hard part is in figuring out which bits are baby and which bathwater. In an upcoming post, I’ll present a systematic approach to doing that.

    Re burden of proof. There’s limited time to investigate possibilities. It *might* be true that bathing in bull’s blood is the one invaluable religious practice, as the Zoroastrians say. I’m not going to spend any time checking that out. There needs to be some germ of a reason to believe; and then one can gradually put more and more effort into investigation as long as you get increasing positive results.

    In the case of the Diamond Sutra, my reading of it is that it presents a somewhat different, and inferior, explanation of emptiness from the Heart Sutra, which is the scripture closest to my heart. Given that they are fairly similar, I don’t dismiss the philosophical content of the Diamond Sutra. I do dismiss its advertising claims, which seem about as likely as bull’s blood… or other bull-related substances… to me.

    Really?!? That’s amazing! Could you give me some direction about how to find out more about that?

    Uh… I’m really sorry if this comes as a surprise. If your faith in the Mahayana sutras is in any way dependent on their objective history, I suggest that you not investigate further.

    If (like me) you consider that visionary and objective history are separate, and the objective history of a text has no bearing on its validity… then you can check essentially any historical source. This is not the slightest bit in doubt among Western historians. I’ll give you a reference if you really want it.

    HATE SHANTIDEVA?! Sir, you have gone mad.

    Mwahahah!

    I find him unbearably pious and humbler-than-thou and mind-your-ps-and-qs-ish. Like an uptight maiden aunt who takes out her sexual frustration by constantly lecturing her nieces about morality.

  33. Matthew says:

    “@ Matthew — Hmm, 30-somethings, eh? Laggards still stuck in the modern era, maybe :-)”

    ha ha! I agree, and I’ll tell them you say so!

    “But you said that they read Thich Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, and so on? If so, that’s probably where they got it…”

    yes, I’m sure you’re right. I was just thinking that new consensus members don’t need to be recruited, they spring forth fully-formed like Athena. Maybe it is like an airborne (or Tricycle borne) disease. My point is that the only thing that can reliably inoculate against it is having actual Buddhist views and, best case, an actual teacher. I would suggest you are an anomaly, hovering in some undefined relationship to many traditional views, yet having a natural and healthy immunity to consensus nonsense. (I obviously have no idea about your actual relationship to traditional Buddhist views, I am just freestyling around… apologies if i have slandered you. I have a sneaking suspicion you may feel complemented by this type of ‘slander…’) In any case, I can see I have not thought this through as carefully as you have.

    “There are benefits to be had in this life, even short of enlightenment…”

    Agree!

    “Absolutely. We agree that the Consensus did that. The hard part is in figuring out which bits are baby and which bathwater. In an upcoming post, I’ll present a systematic approach to doing that.”

    This is a topic dear to my heart, look forward to reading your take….

    “In the case of the Diamond Sutra, my reading of it is that it presents a somewhat different, and inferior, explanation of emptiness from the Heart Sutra, which is the scripture closest to my heart. Given that they are fairly similar, I don’t dismiss the philosophical content of the Diamond Sutra. I do dismiss its advertising claims, which seem about as likely as bull’s blood… or other bull-related substances… to me.”

    I am with you, the Diamond Sutra is largely a mystery to me, I can’t really say I’ve ever read more than a few lines at a go…I also much prefer the Heart Sutra. On the other hand, since it is explained that it is emptiness and only emptiness that will finally liberate, I don’t see why saying that understanding it and passing it on even partially would be more positive than any amount of temporary, finally ineffectual helpfulness. I suppose Aryadeva saying that even a moment’s doubt about the true existence of things causes the entirety of Samara to shudder from it’s foundation has always had a powerful effect on my mind. In any case, this thing about bull’s-blood is something of a red herring, I suspect. You readily admit that the DS presents an interpretation of emptiness, albeit inferior to that of the HS. The Heart Sutra may be the most pithy and profound explanation of reality ever uttered on the planet earth (if that’s indeed where it was uttered). The Diamond Sutra does not seem as powerful, but that hardly seems ground to compare it terminologically to washing in bull’s blood, does it?

    “Uh… I’m really sorry if this comes as a surprise. If your faith in the Mahayana sutras is in any way dependent on their objective history, I suggest that you not investigate further.”

    Ha ha! Don’t worry, I am as stubborn as a broken lock. Not only is my faith in the teachings not dependent on objective history, I don’t believe there is such a thing. Visionary history is all there really is, it’s just that science and modern scholarship offers a consensus vision based on their shared experience empirical evidence. I have no difficulty understanding that there might be a different group that possesses an entirely different experience, and therefor their own body of empirical evidence, valid though it contradicts another valid take.

    “I’ll give you a reference if you really want it.”

    If you would….. I do love scholarship and evidence.

    “HATE SHANTIDEVA?! Sir, you have gone mad.
    “Mwahahah!”

    RRRRRUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNN!!!!! He’s transforming!!!!!!!

    “I find him unbearably pious and humbler-than-thou and mind-your-ps-and-qs-ish. Like an uptight maiden aunt who takes out her sexual frustration by constantly lecturing her nieces about morality.”

    Nice! Emasculate and ridicule. Oh well, I suppose he was already a virgin anyway…. In any case, to each his or her own, no?

    Thanks for the discussion. I enjoy it tremendously, but fear I am taking you away from being able to focus on getting out those anticipated articles….
    :)

  34. Matthew says:

    sorry,

    …”that hardly seems ground to compare it terminologically to washing in bull’s blood, does it?”

    was intended to read
    …”that hardly seems grounds to compare it soteriologically to washing in bull’s blood, does it?”

  35. integralhack says:

    Intriguing article and although we discussed this a little on Twitter, I’m more intrigued in how you think tantra might be presented in order to make it more approachable to western practitioners. As a person who has sought tantra out to a certain extent, I think that the blockage to tantra/Vajrayana isn’t so much of consensus, but of the relative inscrutability of tantric practices (especially sans a guru). I mean, during deity yoga does a westerner substitute Spiderman or Abraham Lincoln for Heruka? What rituals would be performed?

    I see a few blockages to popular presentations (and I think you are identifying the “popular” as part of the problem) of tantra:

    1. Secretiveness of transmission: “What, I can’t just download it to my Kindle!?!”
    2. Deities. “Um, so is the Red Demon humping his consort the equivalent of a Tibetan Jesus?”
    3. Branding problem (related to #2): Isn’t Tantra about just about sex? Search Amazon and just try not to feel inadequate. Sniff.
    4. Guru phobia (relates to #1). Yes, there are bound to be abuses of power in any sort of teacher/student relationship, but spiritual teachers seem to have an unusually bad record and can give “transmission” an entirely different meaning.
    5. Ngondro and seemingly excessive exercises. “I have to do HOW MANY prostrations!?!”

    No surprise that tantra wasn’t included in One Dharma given just a few of these concerns. I’m sure Goldstein and his publisher wanted to sell at least a few copies–in the West, that’s an easy consensus to reach.

    I think you’re on to something here and I look forward to the tantric stuff.

    -Matt

  36. @ Matthew — I do have actual Buddhist teachers, without whom I would be hopelessly lost. It may theoretically be possible to understand Buddhism without direct personal instruction, but only for people smarter or more fortunate than me.

    The presentation of my teachers (who are Lamas in the Aro lineage) is more traditional than the style I write in. I sometimes worry that I may misrepresent Aro as a result. Although I try hard to present Aro accurately when I write about it specifically, I am not representative of Aro.

    since it is explained that it is emptiness and only emptiness that will finally liberate, I don’t see why…

    Hearing about emptiness as a holy magic mystery that solves all your problems does not liberate. Emptiness is only helpful if you actually understand it and can find it experientially. Hearing a bit of the Diamond Sutra could be helpful if it inspires you to learn more. It could be worse than useless if it inspires you into mindless piety.

    Also… to be pedantic… from a Vajrayana point of view, emptiness does not finally liberate. Emptiness can only take you through the bodhisattva bhumis. To go further, you need the non-duality of emptiness and form.

    Not to denigrate the bodhisattva bhumis… Did you know that when you reach the fifth bhumi, your lice bow down to you; and then, out of respect for your holiness, they leave you to plague someone else? This bhumi is called “Difficult To Attain”, and it’s not hard to see why. I, for example, have not even managed to acquire any lice. Sometimes I think the whole Buddhist path is hopelessly arduous.

    Stripped of the advertising hype, the Diamond Sutra boils down to this:

    Buddha: Yo, Subhuti! Is there such a thing as a Ronco Pocket Nose Picker?

    Subhuti: No, O Infinitely Superior World-Honored Utterly Completely Enlightened One.

    Buddha: Well, why the hell not?

    Subhuti: Because they are just called Ronco Pocket Nose Pickers.

    Buddha: Right on, dude!

    This may express an important insight, but it needs a whole lotta ‘splainin. For example, is it the same thing as nominalism, or not?

    that hardly seems grounds to compare it soteriologically to washing in bull’s blood, does it?

    How do we know? Personally, my guess is that shamatha—the practice of emptiness—is more effective than bull’s blood; but the reasoning behind that is quite tenuous. It is not going to convince any Zoroastrians. Or Christians, or whatever.

    Why do you believe what you believe?

    For the history of the Mahayana sutras, you could start with the Wikipedia.

  37. @ integralhack — I’m sorry, somehow part of your twitter interaction got lost when @openbuddha and I were exchanging ten tweets a second, and I failed to respond to you.

    Anyway… your list of obstacles is a good one. But, we already have answers to all those issues, and others like them. This was sorted out in the 1980s, for example in Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala terma.

    The problem is that during the 1990s and 2000s, modernist Vajrayana was suppressed. Mostly what has been visible has been traditional Tibetan presentations, which are inaccessible for most Westerners.

    So some re-creation is going to be required. Partly to recover what was lost during that period, and partly because the world has changed in the three decades since 1982.

    David

  38. Matthew says:

    David

    Thank you, I am very much enjoying this discussion. I find that I rarely come across someone so able yet with whom I disagree so pleasantly on so many fabulous topics. Usually those with any ability agree with me entirely.

    “Hearing about emptiness as a holy magic mystery that solves all your problems does not liberate. Emptiness is only helpful if you actually understand it and can find it experientially…..”

    But that is precisely what the Sutra says, no? “…suppose another person UNDERSTOOD only four lines of this Sutra…..” It does not say “… anyone who mindlessly worships this Sutra…” That’s my take, given that’s what it says.

    “Also… to be pedantic… from a Vajrayana point of view, emptiness does not finally liberate. Emptiness can only take you through the bodhisattva bhumis. To go further, you need the non-duality of emptiness and form.”

    It is on the Path of Seeing that the practitioner, whether Bodhisattva or no, realizes emptiness directly and non-conceptually and becomes free of all intellectually formed delusions. As one progresses through the Path of Meditation, the bhumis are traversed and many levels of innate delusion are shed. Upon reaching the Eighth Bodhisattva ground, the practitioner is irreversibly and finally liberated, having removed all the obstructions to liberation from their mind. So yes, emptiness does in fact finally liberate. Nearly all (maybe all?) Vajrayana traditions explain this realization of emptiness and full liberation as the third of the five stages of completion stage (Fourth of six if you are practicing Kalachakra). It may be that a small family lineage of ngakpas has a different idea, but that would generally be considered insufficient as a basis for saying “From a Vajrayana point of view..” Not to denigrate a small family lineage of Ngakpas…. as previously mentioned, I think they are fabulous, but high pedantry is not going to be their strong suit.

    To “go further ” as you say, is to traverse the three pure bhumis towards the removal of the knowledge obstructions and full enlightenment. This will entail, as you say, a union of form and emptiness. It is also possible to express this from a Vajrayana point of view

    I didn’t actually know that about the lice, I hope it will have a similar effect on mosquitoes and that I achieve this state before summer. Since I am on a pedantry rampage, the fifth Bhumi is more accurately translated as “Difficult to Overcome.” One translator even translated it as “Unbeatable.” It is so called because, having developed a surpassing power of the perfection of concentration, the Bodhisattva cannot be overcome by the Maras (in this context, I think mainly “distractions” is what is meant )

    “This may express an important insight, but it needs a whole lotta ‘splainin. For example, is it the same thing as nominalism, or not?”

    I agree that nowadays it needs a great deal of explanation, but at the time, as the stories go, many achieved high states of realization just be hearing this or that, seeing a flower, etc. There are many such examples. I would like it leave it by saying that I would agree that it may be insufficient on it’s own, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and therefore to say it represents a neurotic personality disorder is going too far, even for a laugh. I’m not saying it’s not funny because it’s so irreverent and shocking, and one shouldn’t say such naughty things, which I am beginning to suspect is the box you want to put others in (esp my homie shantideva!) I’m saying that may actually be the case that by understanding even one of these apparently endless little four-line sequences of “Is it? No. Why? Name. Good!” might actually be unbelievably beneficial, maybe even more so than helping old ladies across the street.

    Having read the “nominalism” entry in Wikipedia, I’m going to leave that one alone as there are many tangled skeins here and I don’t want to draw any raging nominalists out of the deep and then have to defend a position. Too much typing. If you ask “is this the same as saying ‘all phenomena are mere name’,” I will have a readier answer.

    “…. but the reasoning behind that is quite tenuous.”

    Actually, the reasoning behind that is astonishingly good. That may be another discussion….

    “It is not going to convince any Zoroastrians. Or Christians, or whatever.”

    What WILL convince the Christians? Even an incontrovertibility like evolution seems to hardly be able to make a dent. If you recall our earlier discussion, you will remember that we agree that convincing these intellectual ostriches is not the point. The Zoroastrians, Mormons, Branch-Davidians et al can all go their own way with my blessings.

    “Why do you believe what you believe?”

    The Heart Sutra. If you follow it carefully, you will see that an objective world is an impossibility. Discuss?

    “For the history of the Mahayana sutras, you could start with the Wikipedia.”

    Ha ha ! Ouch! Fool that I am, I actually clicked on this link (I should count myself lucky I didn’t get Rick-rolled, I suppose) I was imagining I was going to find some delightful scholarship related to the Diamond Sutra. Anyway, Buddhism-info addict that I am I read the whole entry. I have to say it doesn’t really represent what you said, for example that there is no real way to derive “All Western historians agree that [the Diamond Sutra] has nothing to do with Gotama Buddha, and if he were able to read it, he wouldn’t recognize it as his teaching.” In fact I didn’t see almost anything that would support such a conclusion. Granted it was late, and I do tend to run a little sloppy on the scholarship front, I am happy to be corrected.

    In any case, I accept the basic premise, historians agree that it is unlikely that the historical figure Gotama could not be the author of this or that sutra. I find this uncontroversial for reasons enumerated above.

    It seems to me your position is “For me what matters is what the text says, not where it came from” but this is not wholly consonant with “…. There needs to be some germ of a reason to believe; and then one can gradually put more and more effort into investigation as long as you get increasing positive results.” You say “I give no a priori authority to Gotama, so for me what matters is what the text says, not where it came from” and then you savage the Diamond Sutra, claiming it deserves no “a priori” respect, and of course I agree, but haven’t you in the process of having relied upon Buddhist teachers for so long, without whom you would be lost, built up some a posteriori sense of Budda’s authority based on a germ of a reason and then developed through the alteration of experiment and good result? if not, why do you suppose that would be?

    Thank you again for your well thought-out points and your delightful style! Be warned, as long as you keep answering, I will keep going, for me this is a rare treat.

    best,
    Matthew

  39. Hi Matthew,

    About understanding vs. hearing, I’ll concede your point. I still find that the Sutra has a very high ratio of hype to content.

    Regarding “final liberation”, this seems to be a semantic point about what “liberation” and “final” mean. There is a sense in which “final liberation” is accomplished on the eight bhumi: “final” in the sense of “irreversible” rather than “your work is done now”. No substantive disagreement, I think.

    By coincidence, last night I started reading Sanghrakshita’s spiritual autobiography, on Jayarava’s recommendation. Sangharakshita first read the Diamond Sutra at sixteen or seventeen, and says:

    Though this book epitomizes a teaching of such rarefied sublimity that even Arhats, saints who have attained individual Nirvana, are said to become confused and afraid when they hear of it for the first time, I at once joyfully embraced it with an unqualified acceptance and assent. To me the truth taught by the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra was not new. I had known and believed and realized it ages before and the reading of the Sutra as it were awoke me to the existence of something I had forgotten.

    This may support your points.

    Concerning the history of the text, and your paragraph that begins “It seems to me your position is”, you see contradictions that I’m missing. I’m sorry, I think I may have somewhat lost track of the thread of the argument at this point. We are probably talking past each other.

    Maybe the second point is more important, so I’ll try to clarify, although I am uncertain where the disconnect is. Through study and practice, relying on teachers, I have gradually come to have some understanding of the Prajnaparamita literature, and on that basis believe it is probably of value. Quite what value, and how much, I am uncertain. My partial confidence in it depends mainly on my understanding of the texts, and secondly on the endorsement of my living teachers, and not at all on their author. You seem to agree that we have no knowledge of who the author was; in which case, how could it be otherwise?

    Best wishes,

    David

  40. Matthew says:

    “I still find that the Sutra has a very high ratio of hype to content.”

    fair enough

    “Though this book epitomizes a teaching of such rarefied sublimity that even Arhats, saints who have attained individual Nirvana, are said to become confused and afraid when they hear of it for the first time, I at once joyfully embraced it with an unqualified acceptance and assent. To me the truth taught by the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra was not new. I had known and believed and realized it ages before and the reading of the Sutra as it were awoke me to the existence of something I had forgotten.”

    To be honest, I find this kind of writing unpleasant.

    ” I’m sorry, I think I may have somewhat lost track of the thread of the argument at this point. We are probably talking past each other.”

    yes, this has been a conversation that has touhed on many points. We can just elave it, I’m sure I will comment again in the future and we can discuss, if still relevant.

    “You seem to agree that we have no knowledge of who the author was; in which case, how could it be otherwise?”

    I agree that Western Historians have no idea who the author is. I believe the author is Buddha Shakyamuni. In fact it matters very little who actually authored it.

    best,
    Matthew

  41. Thunder says:

    The only wood I would add to the fire is the case of the missing SAHAJA MAITHUNA as well as the absolute silence of the place of entheogens in practice.
    Now if you combine that with the lack of renunciation it’s no wonder why such a small percentage in “Consensus Buddhism “ever touch stream entry. Having gone through enormous amounts of dharma talks at IMC and IMS I find it simply amazing that discourses about sacred sex doesn’t exist anywhere while at Gnostic teachings a la Samael Aun Weor there is an over abundance.
    I think it’s over due that mainstream Buddhism discourse on the techniques of sacred sex as a dharma gate to liberation.
    Being innovative Americans I think we should take the dharma beyond grammar, logic and rhetoric and to the sky. Yes every way will have to make a 78” Rokkaku during retreat for a sky
    battle and the last Rokkaku in the sky shall be the consensus Buddhism for a lunar cycle….lol

    See you at the next kite festival!

  42. Hi Thunder,
    Well done for throwing another juicy morsel on the discussion. Sex being such a taboo, I doubt we’ll see any teacher willing to put their neck out and start exploring such material in open. Perhaps a good start though would be some great research on the place of sex in the history of Buddhism in order to continue the process of myth busting that is so well under way. Maybe it already exists? Perhaps Rita Gross could tackle it otherwise?
    Matthew
    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.com/

  43. Chris says:

    To me personally, being a Buddhist means that at some level you are willing to accept that long ago there was a human being who discovered the very nature of reality (sorry to use that word) and found it to be beyond explanation — intellectualiztion — that is why he laid out a path that leads to the result, which he said (in a way that should be most acceptable to modern minds) you need to test for yourself. If you don’t find it works for you, drop it. Nothing could be more more Enlightened, in the Western sense. It’s not JUST faith; there’s a repeatable (and peer-reviewed!) experiment going on here.
    Also, if “silly stuff” helps some people along the way, so be it. It’s the result we’re after, right?
    Also, sort of off topic but I feel many who’ve posted here will have an opinion, why is karma unpalatable to many Buddhists, when in the same breath people ask to see results, cause and effect? What’s the difference? Why do proponents of M Theory cosmology believe in six unseen dimensions of the universe to fill in the blanks? What’s the difference?
    I appreciate your essay and all the views expressed here.

  44. Thunder says:

    Hi David,

    The birth of a monster and we seek peaceful coexistence is a bit over the edge for me and may I suggest an alternative…Universal Buddhism,you know like the Catholic Church,absorb and modify.

    contentment
    tranquility
    peace for all
    fulfilment
    the absolute good

  45. Thunder says:

    Hi Matthew,

    Tooo tabooo for You…lol…The two most natural and intimate substances containing the
    quickening elixirs of depth transformation namely the red thread of passion and our indigenous psychoactive plant and fungi neighbors……One has to wonder how Buddhism and Shamanism ever got separated or any so called religion for that matter. Rock’n Roll is another matter. The full circle or rather spiral up/back to sex,entheogens, dance and music at a different octave than the flower power generation is reemerging from its buried subconscious roots.
    Woodstock was actually a covert religious conference, who would have known…lol… with music and lyrics as the guru much like Martin Luther in 1517 laying the ground work for deep reformation and new visions or a Native American dance with singing and drumming and ingesting as a mini-window into future possibilities.

    O my dear, what a nice day for tabooing. Welcome to the Insight Ayahuasca Center where our plants meditate you…..lol… Do plants and fungi really have an agenda to take over the planet along with householder cats as some conspiracy theorists would have us believe or are we already prisoners of the greenery and purring?

    Is sex only for procreation, pleasure and renunciation as orthodox religions would have us believe or does it contain the seeds of liberation as well?

    One Cat to rule them all, One Cat to find them……………………lol

    http://www.earthrites.org/magazine_article_crowley.htm

    http://www.gnosticmedia.com/prof-carl-ruck-interview-pt-3-mushrooms-myth-and-mithras-the-drug-cult-that-civilized-europe-122/

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