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

Photo: Grosso

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] http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/.



Editor: Sarah Winner

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Feb 17, 2013 12:55am

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.

bxgpsy Feb 16, 2013 1:12pm

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

Feb 13, 2013 3:27am

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.

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