Saturday, September 24, 2011

Identity, Doctrine, and Consensus Buddhism

The Universe

I've recently stumbled into some discussions that have gotten me thinking about identity and doctrine, specifically Buddhist identity and Buddhist doctrine. There's a debate ongoing for roughly two and a half millennia about what, exactly, is Buddhism, and who should be considered Buddhist and who shouldn't. Currently, one division in the debate goes between a group I'll dub the 'non-sectarians,' and another one that I'll dub the 'fundamentalists.' I can't think of any better terms, although these ones are a bit loaded. Let it be stated up-front that I fall pretty clearly into the 'fundamentalist' camp, despite not identifying as a Buddhist and not having formally taken refuge as one.

The 'non-sectarians' feel that we shouldn't attempt to define what Buddhism is or isn't. They believe that such an attempt is not merely futile but actually harmful, since it causes division between people who would otherwise share values and goals, and, equally importantly, distracts from the practice of Buddhism, which is best left to each individual Buddhist to define for himself. The Buddhist traditions, in their intellectual, religious, ritualistic, and 'spiritual' dimensions, are something to be drawn from, not something to be codified or analyzed.

The 'fundamentalists,' conversely, feel that despite the broad variety of traditions it consists of, Buddhism can and should also be treated as a coherent philosophy with identifiable core features, that this philosophy forms a doctrinal structure that is indispensable in grounding and guiding the practice, and that movements and teachers that materially deviate from these core features should no longer be regarded as properly Buddhist.

The near enemy of 'fundamentalism' is, clearly, well, fundamentalism—a rigid and inflexible adherence to a set of doctrinal positions that become unchallenged and unchallengable dogma, and a corresponding intolerance of points of view that do not share these positions.

The near enemy of 'non-sectarianism' is a mushy anything-goes tolerance that refuses to challenge bad behavior, exploitation, or outright abuse, giving cover to cults, hucksters, and conmen of all stripes.

The term Consensus Buddhism—coined by its opponents, I think—refers to the somewhat amorphous but pretty large group of first- and second-generation American Buddhists that got going in the 1960's and 1970's, and subsequently went on to establish institutions. While they represent a broad variety of traditions, they do share an identifiable ethos. One opponent of Consensus Buddhism (with whom I agree on this point but disagree strongly on a number of others) argues that it is mostly a Western Liberal hippie ethos dressed up in Buddhist ritual and tradition. Consensus Buddhism frowns strongly on 'fundamentalism' and is very big on 'non-sectarianism.'

In my opinion, Consensus Buddhism has strayed so far into mushy anything-goes territory that it has largely lost sight of what Buddhism originally was about. It has become a religion of self-help, self-improvement, good behavior, and emotional security. It's about reducing suffering, becoming a more functional citizen, and getting comfortable in the life you're living. Challenging notions like 'awakening' and 'renunciation' are edited out, by denying their validity altogether, or their applicability to Western society, or by mythologizing them, or by treating them as 'symbolic', or by just not talking about them at all. Due to its fierce non-sectarianism, Consensus Buddhism has repeatedly and persistently failed to address blatant abuses by people and groups operating under its umbrella: the ongoing Eido Tai Shimano and Dennis Genpo Merzel scandals are particularly egregious examples, but a whole undergrowth of sometimes frankly scary stuff thrives under the protection of its omertà. There's "Zen Master Rama's" Frederick Lenz Foundation, deeply embedded in the structures of the Consensus, all kinds of dodgy characters peddling their schtick under the banner of 'non-sectarianism' or 'post-modernism,' unchallenged by them, or in some cases actually a part of the Consensus.

That stuff stinks. It stinks so bad and so far that one of the reasons I don't identify as a Buddhist, and have no intention to start to do so, is that I don't want any of that stench on me.

Therefore, a discussion of what is and isn't Buddhism is absolutely necessary, even with the concomitant risk of sliding into the 'near enemy' of rigid dogmatism or sectarianism, or, Amida forbid, provoking dissension and strife among 'Buddhists.'

One of the usual ways any such discussions tend to get derailed is that a discussion of doctrine—philosophy, teaching, whatever—gets conflated with a discussion of identity. These are two separate but related notions. There are lots and lots of Buddhists (Catholics, Protestants, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Shaivis, Vaishnavis, Trotskyites, Republicans, whatever) with very strong Buddhist (etc.) identities. Many, perhaps most of them are also highly heterodox. That's just the way things are. There are Buddhists who hold un-Buddhist beliefs or practice un-Buddhist practices, and I see no compelling reason to attempt to deny them their identities. On the contrary, I would find that highly offensive. People should be allowed to define their identities however the hell they want.

However, that is not the same question as looking at Buddhism, or an individual Buddhist tradition, as a doctrinal and philosophical structure. Because of the sheer mass of material and variety of traditions, there are bound to be contradictions and conflicts in it. Yet it's not hard at all to identify salient features that distinguish Buddhism from neighboring doctrinal systems. Buddhism is not the same as Advaita Vedanta, nor Taoism, nor Shintoism, nor Confucianism, nor Sufism, nor existentialism, nor postmodernism, nor Western Liberal hippie-ism. There is overlap with all of these doctrinal systems, and more, but there are also divergences. By looking at these commonalities and divergences, a picture starts to emerge. We can then look at that picture and refine it, debate what's in it and what's not.

This leads to the second common way such a process gets derailed: it turns into an attempt at defining 'true' Buddhism, the one that has all of the central distinguishing features, and none of the 'accretions.' It becomes very easy to go from that to, say, dismissing Ch'an as Taoism with meditation, Zen as Ch'an with samurais, Tibetan Buddhism as Theravada with earth spirits, and so on and so forth. Down that road, too, lies madness.

But that debate needs to be had. My view is that a Buddhism that substitutes reduction of suffering for liberation from suffering, group therapy for eyebrow-to-eyebrow encounter, emotional security for challenge, productive citizenship for awakening, spiritual consumerism for renunciation, homilies for rigorous thinking, the ego, id, and superego for cittas, caittas, dhammas, and skandhas, niceness for truth, is no longer recognizably Buddhist. I certainly want no truck with such a religion.

Not now, not ever.


  1. You're trying to define a religion o.O
    I pity you...

  2. Actually, not exactly. I'm trying to have a discussion about defining a religion. I don't think there can be an answer that everybody agrees about, that would just be another milquetoast consensus. People will have different ideas about it. Some provisional definitions will exclude some groups, others, others. But without such a continuous process of examination and critique, it all degenerates into mush.

  3. "Buddhas of the past and future teach mind to mind without bothering about definitions"

    That is Bodhidharma's definition.

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

  4. True, but the Buddhas aren't the problem, are they now?

  5. No. But to be blunt, I fail to see how definitions would help solve the problems that seem to stem simply from our greed and stupidity.

  6. They wouldn't. But the search for definitions might.

  7. Why not. I guess it could be a very important part of the practice.

  8. Perhaps, although that's not quite what I had in mind. There is a social dimension to this too. The sangha. I was thinking more about that end of things. Not looking for a witch hunt, mind, but I do think it's important to take a hard look at what is taught/marketed/spread in the name of Buddhism. If the very process that's supposed to address ignorance and greed (not to mention ill-will) is subverted, then how are we supposed to address them?

  9. "If the very process that's supposed to address ignorance and greed (not to mention ill-will) is subverted, then how are we supposed to address them?"

    This is an important question. What gets spread as "Buddhist teaching" isn't always (or maybe isn't even often) terribly liberating. Sometimes, I look around, and see a lot of new "prisons" being created in the name of Buddhism and/or the Buddha. Which is nothing new, but with the ease of mass media these days, it does mean more of it. Moving faster. And maybe getting adopted faster.

  10. To me it seems that the primary responsibility is not to deceive oneself. That's what really has an effect, and is also very difficult to do.

    That said, e.g. Dogen and Hakuin both publicly criticized practices and teachings they thought mistaken. But I recall they started to do so only at a highly advanced stage, when they were established teachers.

    Of course, if abuse or corruption happens nearby, e.g. in one's own sangha, then it's extremely important that it can be talked about. But personally I don't feel that making noise about corrupted teachers and groups thousands of miles away that I've never met would be that helpful.

  11. Sit down and shut up. Gotcha.

    Tell me, Jussi, do you apply this to everything, or only Buddhism? If only Buddhism, then what's so special about Buddhism to merit such treatment?

    For example, suppose a politician thousands of miles away says something about 'liberty' or 'democracy' or 'justice' that you think entirely subverts those ideals. Might it be helpful to speak up about that?

    If so, what difference does it make if it's a guy in robes with a title like 'Roshi' instead of a guy in a suit with a title like 'President?'

  12. Somehow for me it's natural to operate in very small circles, and not to get into internet activism, for example. Maybe it's some kind of escapism. It always seemed to me though that most of internet debates quickly degenerate into insanity and flamewars. Then they just create more ill will and frustration.

    For you the situation might be quite different. And I think it's good that people like Brad Warner speak out loudly in their blogs.

    So I'm definitely not trying to tell you or anybody else what to do. It's a matter of personal preferences.

  13. Right, thanks for clearing that up.

  14. I found your blog while googling Vasubhandu, saw your post from 2010. Then went to check out your blog.

    I am a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and the term "non-sectarian" has a different meaning than what is written in your post.

    In Tibet there are several lineages of Buddhism, Nyigma, Kagyu, Gelugpa, etc. At some point in Tibet's history, the lineages became very absorbed in their own monasteries and teachings and the connections began to get lost - connections between the lineages, the understanding of, for example, Buddha's 84,000 teachings -- teachings to suit each person's capacity and interest, and so on.

    So a number of Tibetan scholars arose to begin a non-sectarian movement, to break up the calcification that was causing the different lineages to become more dogmatic than was necessary, out of ignorance rather than conviction.

    When I first began to study Buddhism, I found the stress on non-sectarianism by my teacher to be confusing. He was adamant that there was, for example, no real conflict between Theravadin, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and very meticulously was able to clarify that assertion.

    But that's all about Tibetan Buddhism -- I believe you're talking about something a little different.

    But in this context, I am definitely non-sectarian.

  15. Yep, I've heard of that.

    Rather ironically, the most dogmatic convert Buddhists I've come across have been "nonsectarian" Tibetans—their understanding of rebirth, for example, would make most Ch'an, Zen, and Son lineages non-Buddhist.

  16. Well, dogmatism can be found everywhere. I think the nature of conversion itself tends to produce some dogmatism. The excitement of a new view can make one go overboard! I was brought up as a Jew, and recall hearing/reading how Jewish converts to Christianity were the worst anti-Semites. It's like falling in love, maybe, the passions run high and the new lover makes the old lover seem terribly unworthy, lol.

    As far as rebirth, I think Westerners generally have a difficult time understanding what that is and so one can always get a laugh from those kinds of discussions.

  17. What is a true sauna like, or what was the "original" sauna like? As a Finn, saunas abroad seem cool and wimpy, with men covering themselves with towels. Turks add fragrance and steam to their version. Finns add silence and a kind of holiness, plunging to an icy lake, whipping your self with birch branches and time to time drinking alcohol too. Some cultures separate genders, some do not. There's also the almost mandatory old guy in every Finnish public saunas, who likes to try to out sauna everybody else. That's Finnish "saunaism". Finns tend to be quite dogmatic on their view on how to go to sauna.

    I see a sauna being a hot room where you get sweaty and eventually clean. Saunaism seems to add what we do with it all.

    I see Buddhism talking about how to overcome our sense of separation. Theres a bunch of means to it and they have still multiplied since the time of Gautama. There's a lot of fear in at least in Zen circles considering mixing psychotherapeutical seeming methods to ones practice (e.g critique on mindfulness). It's usually seen as an dilution of the real thing.

    I think ones motivation defines one's practice. Still some one who aims to see through the sense of separation, might not have the need to identify as a Buddhist.