Post-Traditional Buddhism: The Quiet Revolution? Part Two. ~ Matthew O’Connell

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on Nov 22, 2012
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Breaking the mould of eastern Buddhism and taking ownership of the dharma in a new century.

Part 2: Big up Post-Traditional Buddhism

My new bride on the spiritual path is perhaps best defined as Post-Traditional Buddhism—a term I picked up from Hokai Sobol, who is a Buddhist Geeks associate.

What a grand title that sounds. Yet, what it appears to imply in essence is the shedding of deference of authority for the path to traditional Buddhism, whether it be Zen, Gelugpa, Burmese or Hokai’s own traditional roots, Shingon Buddhism.

Emerging Western Buddhism that is post-traditional is in a very early stage of birth; what follows is my own understanding of this emerging phenomenon. Others will no doubt be wiser on this topic, but for now, too few voices are discussing it in the public sphere, so, not one to fear for my safety, I’ll dive straight on in and do my best to paint a rather challenging picture with words.

It appears that the pregnancy started in earnest in the 1960s, although it seems to me that the birth has only really begun to take place in this century. Whereas Western Buddhism defines any form of Buddhism, traditional or otherwise, that is alive and functioning on western soil, Post-Traditional Buddhism is perhaps the most radical and accurate description for what is starting to show tentative signs of flowering in both North America and Europe, as a response to the inadequacies of traditional Buddhism for a contemporary western audience.

Secular Buddhism is one of the more well-known faces of this emerging phenomenon. Though most often this disconnected movement towards a radical re-engagement with Buddhism is found in very small pockets of physically disconnected individuals, couples and groups who are connecting primarily through the internet and through informal meetings.

Some of them came together at the Buddhist Geeks conferences in 2012 and 2011, but rumours abound that they were infiltrated by many traditional Buddhist buddies. In fact, a key feature of Post-Traditional Buddhism is the mixing of old and new. Post-Traditional Buddhism is built on the work that has come before it.

Interestingly, many of the shared themes emerging within this movement seem to represent a push by a new generation of practitioners willing to engage with many of the issues, which are central to the evolution of society as a whole at this time and many of which take up the central issues concerning post-modernity. Post-modern thought seems to me to be central to the rewiring that is occurring in these informal exchanges and elaborations.

The sanctity of ultimate truth, the rules of engagement handed down through traditional structures, the structures of power that are seemingly inherent within institutionalised Buddhism are put to the guillotine by Post-Traditional Buddhists in a symbolic act of reclaiming the bare bones of knowing and experiencing.

It seems that the more intellectually leaning members of this movement are concerned with bringing together not just science and its analysis of meditational results, but the Western intellectual tradition—from philosophy to linguistics, to the political sciences and sociology—to bear on the interpretation and working of Buddhism and its beliefs, core tenets and practices. This, in my opinion, is where the tastiest of morsels can be found. Whereas science may provide secular means for quantifying the value of meditation and its results, other academic fields challenge and destabilise the ideological ground of Buddhism and in particular its traditional methods of delivery.

Although science may convince a whole new generation of businessmen, housewives and school kids to practice secular mindfulness, those interested in the bigger picture of personal and collective transformation may benefit greatly from uprooting Buddhism from its traditional base of power in the hands of Asian teachers and exploring it under the light of existing and emerging sociological and philosophical enquiry.

Post-Traditional Buddhism is a concerted effort to move away from the hegemony of what Dave Chapman describes as Consensus Buddhism. Because of this, many of its features are a direct refusal to kowtow to traditional Buddhist forms and relationships.

Post-Traditional Buddhists are not content to swallow whole the doctrinal proclamations of an exotic and powerful figure, whether Asian or otherwise. Post-Traditional Buddhists are independently minded and determined to work through the raw material of Buddhism on new and divergent terms. Post-Traditional Buddhists are usually individualists and are incorporating a relationship with knowledge and technology into their practice that mirrors the shift that has taken place in wider society, through the arrival of the internet. Sources are multiple, open, instantly accessible and dissectible. Post-Traditional Buddhism is not embedded in a foreign culture, or in a foreign language.

Post-Traditional Buddhism is not based on lineage and the passing down of power and the ownership of exotic roles such as Tulku, Lama, Rinpoche and Holy One. Post-Traditional Buddhism is not based in a temple or a building which deliberately recreates the symbolic reality of another time and another country.

Instead it is likely taking place near a computer screen, on the subway or in the pub in multiple realities and possibilities. Post-Traditional Buddhism both criticizes constructively and destructively. Post-Traditional Buddhism is very often resultsorientated but does not necessarily take traditional Buddhism’s definitions of the goal as accurate or realistic. Post-Traditional Buddhism is increasingly open source: accessed through blog, podcast, webinar and free, downloadable content, some of which may be illegal.

Post-Traditional Buddhism is willing to pull apart traditional teachings and breakdown and defile Buddhism’s core taboos: enlightenment is happening here, cries Mr Folk at enlightenment central in New York. Post-Traditional Buddhism generally respects and appreciates what Buddhism has to offer, but will not blindly follow its rules: a significant power shift is taking place regarding who owns the keys to the Buddha’s legacy.

Post-Traditional Buddhism openly engages with other sources of knowledge and uses them to examine Buddhism itself: shifting in and out of Buddhist perspectives enhances rather than distracts—the nonsense idea of purity has been jettisoned. Post-Traditional Buddhism is dynamic and in many ways is a major game changer still bubbling under the surface waiting to pounce. I consider Post-Traditional Buddhism to be the most authentic form of truly Western Buddhism to emerge yet.

Post-Traditional Buddhism is not unified. Its voice has not yet been found, perhaps because it is a movement that so far has no institutional base, no fixed location. Its creativity and experimentation is possible because of its response to existing tradition and the loose and fluid nature of its participants. There are early simmerings of an eventual shift towards organisation among the Secular Buddhists, although they are at the least radical end of the scale and how desirous affiliation with their nametag will be, I don’t know.

Ted Meisner, who is instrumental in bringing about the Secular Buddhist vision, seems to represent the mould of a middle class, science geek who is enamoured with the rational.

This approach may not appeal to the more radically minded. The rational and scientific are not the only source of reinterpretation of the significance and place of Buddhism in the 21st century as Stephen Schettini, the Naked Monk, has declared.  He, along with Ken McLeod, has pointed out that we are irrational beings at heart and that our impulsive and emotional nature must be engaged with as a component of the path and not ignored through ideological snobbery.

For some, if not many, there is still an overt respect for traditional Buddhism that hinders real and radical change through unbridled examination and questioning. Tradition has always feared open dissent and the destabilising effects of challenging the hegemony of a given power base. Buddhism is no different to other religions in this regard, in spite of what many Buddhists may like to believe.

The potential of Post-Traditional Buddhism is immense because in part it is the face of a much richer and more complete engagement with Buddhism. It is also uncertain and destabilising. At present it is birthing itself as a sort of virus and its roots are spreading in unseen ways as independent voices and minds act upon Buddhism and are encouraged by the spread of rebel movement within pre-existing Buddhist camps.

I would like to see this movement strengthen, not through the establishment of a new convenient consensus, but as a stark and determined engagement amongst Buddhists in the West. Traditional Buddhism does not really need to fear this shift. It can incorporate it as a necessary moment of change, of clarification and an opportunity in which the authenticity of its own values, promises and claims can be tested more thoroughly. Impermanence is real folks. Engage with it, or hide from it, it will still be there.

Traditions can no longer isolate themselves from the world outside the dharma centre doors.  It’s time to stand up, step outside and take a look around and embrace the great potential of truly dynamic, western forms of Buddhism.


Matthew O’Connell has been pushing against the status quo since time began. He’s a Brit teaching Shamanism and Buddhist meditation through coaching one-to-one and workshops in Italy and Slovenia. I also teach English and harass the neighbours with my attempts at stand up when not exploring enlightenment. [email protected]



Editor: Sarah Winner

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42 Responses to “Post-Traditional Buddhism: The Quiet Revolution? Part Two. ~ Matthew O’Connell”

  1. Suri says:

    Hi Matthew
    I followed the kadampa tradition for a few years but then I realized it was in fact like a religion , you know , with all the dogmatism, rituals, chanting , ceremonies , postrating, etc so I stopped going to class and other activities … Nevertheless there were many things about buddhism that I still liked so I searched for something lighter and that's when I found Pema Chodron's books…her style and honesty really surprised me and her teachings were really easy to follow . I have kept many of those teachings with me , specially those that I could reconcile with atheism, science and common sense … I have no intention of joining any other religious organization in the future …all I need is books and like you said…my computer.

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    What you describe sounds like being your own attorney and yourself as the client.

  3. Mark Ledbetter says:

    LOL. I like the article. On the other hand, Padma nails perfectly a huge potential problem with a western approach. Yes, we westerners do like being both attorney and client. When we dispense with the authoritarianism of tradition, we open the door to ego. There's the problem, how do we dispense with both authoritarianism and ego? Cause if we're going to follow the way, we have to dispense with both instead of flitting back and forth between the two.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    Mathew…"Post Traditional Buddhism", to me, is an intellectual pursuit of a practice which has retained none of the following: renunciation or disgust with the world or samsara, Bodhicitta (relative and ultimate), blessing or awareness. It has been resigned to authors and "thinkers" who have lost the one pointed aspiration to release themselves and all beings from samsara right now! The "I am drowning in this mire and I want out"! Where is the Lama who can guide me out and show me the true nature of mind? I suppose books and workshops held by those of you who have now turned buddhism into a trans personal psychology commodity are the new "tradition"….where are the bessings? Who will tell you that what you think is realization is just bigger ego?

  5. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I'm with the anti-authoritarian anti-silly rules aspect of post-modern Buddhism: throw out cow-towing to authority and silly rules in order to get at the essence. On the other hand, if you take out the authority and the rules, I get the feeling that a lot of people, rather than getting at the essence, will just cloak western thinking in Buddhist robes. I mean, Buddhism involves escape from misery through non-attachment to this world. That involves recognizing that this world is illusion and our devotion to it is ego. I get the feeling, though, that for many, post-modern Buddhism makes this world the real thing, our bodies the real source of consciousness, and social activism the way to salvation.

  6. Glenn Wallis says:

    Matthew. Other than use of the internet, literally every single item you mention in your article as evidence for and facet of "post-traditional Buddhism" is as old as Buddhism itself. No one with even a basic grasp of Buddhist history would see in the so-called "radical" innovations of Hokai Sobol, Ted Meissner, Stephen Schettini, Buddhist Geeks, Kenneth Folk, or Ken McLeod anything but the same old traditional wine in new bottles. I'm sorry, but to call these people "radical" is just silly. They are just one end of the "Consensus Buddhism" that David Chapman articulates. At the other end, of course, are their eastern-oriented (as your title indicates), yet only slightly more conservative, religionists. When it comes to the claims of the people you name here, you should be more careful not to confuse their rhetoric with reality.

  7. Bob Sander says:

    Great stuff! Enjoyed it. A welcome change.

  8. lee rogers says:

    There is a dharma protestant movement in S. Asia as well …

    A Dhamma Rain Shower:


    Broken Buddha:

    review halfway down at:

  9. korin says:

    Matthew, good work. I agree that the shift which has led to the emergence of Post-Trad Buddhism – or even just the possibility of it – can only be a good one. Failure to accommodate changes in society and life in general has proven to be the downfall of almost every other 'religion' you can think of, and the means by which original intents are corrupted merely to maintain status quos which are no longer useful or meaningful to those who follow them.

  10. Bob Sander says:

    Hey man, where are the comments disapperaing to? Bring them back!!!

  11. […] Post-Traditional Buddhism: The Quiet Revolution? Part Two. ~ Matthew O’Connell ( Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. 365 days blogging diary Faith God journal writingBuddhism Child abuse Opposing Views Religion and Spirituality What Is Buddhism […]

  12. […] Matthew O’Connell‘s original post (part two) at Elephant Journal. (Some of my comments there are reflected in my post here.) Hokai Sobol (as of this posting, this […]

  13. Jeff says:

    I'd have more respect for the countless varieties of "post-traditional Buddhism" if those that advocate for them had a couple of decades, minimum, of committed and consistent traditional training and practice, under the supervision of an established teacher within an established lineage, while, importantly, setting aside their reactive (and some would say arrogant) need to question authority, in order to first deeply comprehend the teachings and non-conceptually experience the practices (Buddhism, traditional or not, is nothing if it isn't practice). If we're so full of ourselves, our preconceptions, and our desires, how can we possibly take in and understand what we're challenging? And if we don't deeply understand what we're challenging, then what exactly is it that we're challenging? All that's being challenged is conceptual and emotional ghosts of our own making. In other words, we project our ignorance and craving onto Buddhism and then challenge the under-informed fiction that we misperceive as "traditional Buddhism".

    In my experience, those who feel a burning craving to change Buddhism are mostly what I call "internet Buddhists" and "book Buddhists" that have little or no actual practice experience or guidance / training from a well-trained established teacher. These kinds of (usually young) faith-based Buddhists very seldom understand what they are rushing to throw out, not even a little bit, and so are really only attempting to make the teachings and practices conform to their own hungry desires, contempt for authority and tradition, and habitual preconceptions…the same hungry desires, contempt for authority and tradition, and habitual preconceptions that keeps them ensnared in cycling dissatisfaction of every kind. I say "faith-based" because they have so much faith in their ignorance that they're convinced they're qualified to re-invent a tradition that is at least 2,500 years old.

    The rush to change so-called "traditional Buddhism" (which begs the question…exactly who's Buddhism?") is a uniquely western conceptual habit and an unexamined psychological need (hunger) for instant gratification and self-affirmation that Westerns have very little self-awareness of. (And, even the idea that there is a "traditional Buddhism" is a heap of ignorance…can we really lump Nagarjuna, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Bodhidharma, Pema Chodron, Mipham, and Jack Kornfield all under "Traditional Buddhism"??). Westerners tend to think that everything needs to be changed to suit them and their preferences, right now – like small children do. Put another way, Westerners tend to be arrogant control freaks that need to pee on everything. This approach to the dharma is just more Western colonization…strip mining ancient traditions in the same way that the West strip mines the globe for usable resources with no regard for the relational wholeness of the environment within which the stuff they want exists, and no clue to the endless dissatisfaction that this contempt for the integral authority of the natural world causes. In the same way, strip mining Buddhism before knowing how the elements that we react negatively to actually work, why we're reacting, and how these rejected elements actually function in relationship to those parts that we prefer, shows the same ignorance and contempt for authority that has wreaked havoc on the Earth. So-called "Non-Traditional Buddhism" (and all the other names being used to justify a lack of willingness to set aside the invented "self" long enough to understand what Buddhism actually teaches and how it teaches it) is just a personalized designer philosophy.

    It's not surprising that a declining, intellectually bankrupt, and infantile consumer society would spawn such a self-absorbed, arrogant, and superficial approach to Buddhism. The amusing and ironic thing is that those that rush to change Buddhism to fit their idiosyncratic stale belief systems often think of and describe themselves as "rebels"…when in fact, they are just more of a long line of completely programmed tools, thinking within long-established dysfunctional patterns and doing what Western society does best…degrading and destroying from a selfish perspective of cherished ignorance. This sad state of being is what "traditional" Buddhism offers us freedom from. Therein lies true rebellion…

  14. Jeff says:

    I'm not at all surprised that you cap your position by questioning the authority of traditional Dharma teachers and institutions using extremely rare examples of misconduct. I find that to be very typical of nearly all attempts to pee on the authority of Dharma. Westerners very much dislike and react negatively and aggressively toward anything that is perceived to challenge their own strongly defended personal authority (the unexamined, thoroughly delusional, but carefully groomed primacy of "self"). Westerners always think they know everything, and that they are uniquely qualified to change everything…particularly if what they are changing is of non-Western origin (which is consciously or unconsciously held to be "less than"). This common (generally male and Caucasian) Western character trait has wreaked destruction on the natural world and all living beings for the past 1,500 years unabated, and continues in the arrogant assumption that they, of all people, are supremely qualified to change and significantly alter traditional (non-western) teachings and teaching methods so as to suit themselves. What is generally overlooked by those who see the Dharma as another mind field within which to assert their oh so special "self" in order to form something that defends and is comfortably compatible with their well-groomed and highly cherished notions of "self", is the _authority of traditional teachings_. My observation is that those who are intent on changing the Dharma strive to do so because they unconsciously sense and are threatened deeply by the authority of the teachings, which if accepted and engaged deeply through committed traditional practice, would dissolve their deeply cherished and well-defended notion of "self" and the typical accompanying self-solidifying and self-serving patterns of thought and emotion that habitually war against anything that threatens to reveal the truth about such self-absorbed notions. Yes, I'm saying that the rebellious compulsion to change Dharma is an unexamined psychological defense mechanism that is a reaction against the power that the authority of the teachings have to dissolve overblown, delusional, and arrogant notions of "self". The typical Western (especially male) mind cannot consciously acknowledge such a power to erase what they hold most dear, and so they rush to conquer and dominate the perceived threat. Typical Western male behavior.

  15. Hi Jeff,
    It seems you have your mind set on the conclusions you've reached, which is made clear by your lack of response to the other points in my reply to your comment.
    The way you define the doggedly autonomous individual sounds very much like a stereotypical American male. I'm European by the way. It certainly doesn't capture much in the way of the folks I've met loosely involved in the shift towards dharma I've outlined in my post. Sorry. The label you've made just doesn't fit.
    I repeat, if traditional dharma is capable of surviving its transition to the west in the long-term, it will do so by standing on its own two feet without the need to feel threatened by innovation and the adapting of the dharma in new ways, as new host countries have done ever since Buddhism existed.
    I just don't see your judgements as ringing true at all Jeff. Perhaps you should read my original reply again and see if you can respond to the other points.

  16. Jeff says:

    "I repeat, if traditional dharma is capable of surviving its transition to the west in the long-term, it will do so by standing on its own two feet without the need to feel threatened by innovation and the adapting of the dharma in new ways, as new host countries have done ever since Buddhism existed."

    If dharma practitioners are to wake up to Dharma, they will do so by standing on the solid ground of traditional practice and traditional interpretation of the teachings without the compulsive need to "fix" them to suit their own preferences. European men not exempt. 😉

    Buddhism will beneficially change over time at the direction of highly trained and compassionately skillful teachers, if and when they see fit. This process may take hundreds of years. Unless you're a highly trained and compassionately skillful teacher, perhaps you might regard your impatient craving (word chosen carefully) for change as just another distracting habit that serves the ego's need for control and dominance. The restless compulsion to change Buddhism by under-trained "rebels" instead of conforming oneself to the teachings will also have an effect on how Buddhism moves into the West, but not a skillful one.

  17. Jeff says:

    Yes, you're absolutely free to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to protect the delusional primacy of of the hungry rebellious self. Whatever floats your boat. But why call it Buddhism?

  18. Jeff: you've made up your mind so there seems to be no where to go with any further exchange. You've also failed to respond to the points I made twice: you've failed to pick up on the fact that the notion of tradition itself is faulty and highly self-referential and that amongst traditions there is very little, if anything, in the way of agreement over what determines valid and traditional. You're left with stating that your tradition and teacher are best, know best and should be unquestioningly followed. If that works for you, fine, but don't expect it to be the be all and end all of Buddhism.
    By the way, the baby is happy and playing with yet another wonderful evolution slowly emerging within Buddhism. The water was getting stagnant anyway. There's movement and the opening up of possibilities and yes, for sure many who are bringing creative inquiry and profound and honest engagement to Buddhism are choosing, or will choose, to leave Buddhism behind because of its inherent problems. Change is inevitable though and really it's funny how those who grasp at the certainties of tradition fail to see how their own traditions are subject to the same universal forces that Buddhism illustrates and further how those 'traditional' expressions of Buddhism emerged themselves through revolution and a push against the status-quo and traditional authorities of their time. Think about that for a moment Jeff.

  19. bxgpsy says:

    I must admit i arrived at this blog after trying to find information about Ekert Tolle. I had never really read anything by him, just heard a few things about him here and there. While on the one hand i am quite tempted to label his type of Buddhist practice(it is Buddhist) as McBuddism, I am also willing to concede that he might have some knowledge of what he is talking about. I just think that he and his followers are perhaps in a very simplistic type of Buddhist realization at best however. I don’t know what this has to do with the preceding posts except that within myself I can feel the anger and bitterness within myself as i try to understand something new that I could just as easily call new age clap trap. There are going to be many new teachers and practitioners of the Dharma as it blossoms here in the west some will stay and some will go. I am trying to understand why is there soo much animosity from some about traditional Buddhist practice to begin with? what are they pissed off about? Just a simple mans thoughts THX

  20. Hi. I agree that Eckhart is basically rolling with a Buddhist approach and that labelling it McBuddhist is probably appropriate: capturing more perhaps than how it was intended, than how it is received. I am no fan of Eckhart because I find the simple call to be present highly ignorant and facile. It's yet another one-liner used to sell books and convince the lazy masses that all you need is to finally do that one thing of wanting to be present and the jobs done: you're suddenly awakened like him. I doubt his realisation too, but that's a topic for another blog post.
    As far as I'm concerned there is little animosity towards traditional forms of Buddhism: much more a critical evaluation after being very much an insider for two decades. The first part of the post I've written expresses some of the issues I've had personally with a number of Tibetan Buddhist schools. The issue is certainly not a case of us and them as I tried to get across to Jeff. It’s more natural evolution. People get highly defensive when they have their beliefs challenged and Buddhist are alas no different from everyone else. When we add holy, special, super and so forth to our beliefs, as in the case of religion, we really, really get wound up when they are not only challenged, but even questioned – this points to the weight of assumptions and their basis for constructing an identity i.e. Buddhist.

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