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

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on Nov 22, 2012
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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]



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. Suri says:

    "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!"

    I think the whole point of Post Traditional Buddhism is to get rid of unrealistic beliefs and dogma and keep the practices that can actually make a difference in the real world….postrating 107 times to purify your bad karma wont really make you a better person.

    Also, buddhism is not static it has changed and it will continue to change in the future.

  6. 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.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    You are very funny…and you appear to have no regard for Buddhism…so why make a comment? You would change something you do not even understand

  8. Suri says:

    The typical traditionalist attitude. You are the perfect example of why people dont want anything to do with your little rotten spiritual communities….bravo.

  9. I wouldn't say that books and a computer are all we need, not at all. Rather that an open exploration of Buddhism is quite clearly no longer limited to a dharma centre and a single tradition. This article represents an exploration of alternative possibilities to the types of dynamics and relationships that westerners generally have with Asian forms of Buddhism. It sort of indirectly posits the question, 'How would it really look if we developed a Western expression of Buddhism without any of the cultural, historical, political and institutional trappings of Asian Buddhist forms?' For Secular Buddhists, with Stephen Batchelor being the most well-known, that implies returning to the earliest teachings from the Pali cannon and using critical thought and the framework of Western philosophy to engage more critically and openly with Buddhism. I agree with their engagement with the sciences and western philosophy, I don't agree with limiting an exploration of the value of Buddhism in western society to only the earliest recorded Buddhism. Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, Nepalese, Indian Buddhisms all have a wealth of resources. I think we need to free ourselves of the hegemony of Buddhist ideology in exploring Buddhism though, which means being willing to talk about Buddhism from alternative perspectives, and not just as a Buddhist.

  10. I've no idea what you mean by this 🙂 Sorry. Perhaps you could explain further?

  11. Sure. It's a great question and the attorney metaphor makes sense now 🙂 I think we need to be very clear about the role of authority. We are ultimately responsible, and therefore have authority, for our own experience and movement along the path. In Guru yoga you may say that is not so, but as a Westerner, the idea of giving responsibility for my own relationship with the truths of Buddhism to someone else is totally unacceptable. I also find the notion of ego problematic. What do you mean by ego? The self structure, or arrogance and self-importance?
    An alternative to top-down leadership in Buddhist circles would be the strengthening of the sangha, or community of fellow practitioners with a more democratic approach to discussing community, creating community and ensuring transparency and shared mutual aims. Certainly the idea of total reliance on a guru figure is immensely problematic. Just look at the cases of abuse of power in Buddhists lineages with the majority coming out of Zen and Tibetan, where the guru has immense authority and is embedded in that role of authority through and by tradition. The whole issue of power is central to understanding relationships in western society and has often been ignored by naive followers of Buddhism in the west, perhaps looking to be saved, or fathered.
    For sure you cannot undertake the project of awakening (however you might define that) alone, or rather, it's highly problematic if you do. The need for community is paramount. In fact, this is one of the great challenges to emerging expressions of western Buddhism: how do you create community in a non-traditional setting? The Secular Buddhists are working at this, but for the more radical streak of this shifting momentum, relationships may be in small pockets of teacher-student, or open-sanghas. This is an ongoing project. I for one am not satisfied by online communities.

  12. Can you define blessings and your actual, direct experience of such? The terms you use are borrowed right out of a dharma book or talk it seems. Without referring to Buddha-speak, what is your experience of these things you describe and how would you describe them without deferring to Buddhist language? To parrot Buddhist truisms is not really helpful in my experience in establishing greater clarity and mutual understanding. For sure the intellect has an important role in the type of Buddhism I have explored in the article, but who says it has to stop there?
    Disgust with what? The wheel of rebirth perhaps? Suffering as pain, discomfort, confusion, dissatisfaction? With what?
    Bodhichitta? What is that? Do you mean intense feeling for the plight of all creatures on this planet? Again, what's your actual experience of that? This questioning is a shift away from trying to develop a Buddhist Badge towards an exploration of the shared, human nature of feeling and connection. For this to have value it has to be experienced individually and explored deeply. Then the language you choose to describe and define such aspects of a potential path will likely emerge in more personal language and be less restricted to Buddhist vocabulary.
    Part of Post-Traditional Buddhism, as I have defined it above, is to recognise that Buddhism does not have the final word on compassion, wisdom and so forth and to find a way to talk about such qualities without being limited to parroting Buddha-speak. If Buddhism doesn't own compassion, then it must be something inseparable from the human condition. In order to understand the role of compassion in your daily relationship with the world, it has to function in non-Buddhist dynamics and not be based on the role, or identity of Buddhist. When we navigate the process of awakening compassion/or awakening to compassion, through the filter of Buddhism, we make it dependent in part on the structure of Buddhism itself.

    Part of this process involves you growing up, maturing as a human and taking ownership of the relationships you have with tradition, thought, feeling and path.

  13. '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.'

    This is actually a highly problematic proposition. Escape from what misery, to where? How we translate the term dukkha, or whatever, is again an issue that has to be explored more thoroughly in an engagement with Buddhism. Non-attachment too. Non-attachment: what does that actually mean in lived experience? Until we have an experience of your own, we are simply throwing around Buddha themes and Buddha concepts. If you live right now, here in this moment, in front of your screen, all you really have is your body and this world and your commitment to this life. In this moment how are you living? Where's the misery? Where's the attachment and lack of it?
    I wouldn't diss social activism. Compassion takes root in action, not abstract concepts and aloof non-attachment. Without this body and this world, there is no Buddhism, no path, practise and not much in the way of possibility. Or do you believe in super-buddha kingdoms and with sexy maidens and eternal bliss?

  14. John says:

    I agree with you Matthew. Too many Buddhists still seem to think that being detached from the world is the way to go.

  15. Sara Skydancer says:

    But surely John that's right. This body is sinful, didn't you know!? Best to disassociate from it and live in the clouds like a yogini.

  16. 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.

  17. Glen. Thanks for the visit. I enjoy and benefit from much of what goes on at your blog.
    This article was an exploration of themes I personally see from my limited experience in the world of Buddhism in which I have noticed and experienced a very clear distinction between what I received from mainly Tibetan teachers (traditionalists) and the people mentioned in this article.
    Compared to what I knew, elements that emerge from these people and organisations are somewhat radical, or at least a fairly radical shift away from the romanticism that McMahan talks about in his 'The Making of Buddhist Modernism' in which exotic Asian traditions are idealised, and the self-referential nature of most Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen for that matter. Compared to most western engagement with Buddhism, which has afforded it an excessive level of respect and avoided overt criticism, the themes that run through the people's work mentioned are heading in a new direction in which criticism of established norms by Asian teachers is taking place and active curiosity and engagement with the western sciences and philosophical traditions is starting to happen and for some that engagement does not only serve to bolster Buddhism's credentials. Although of course, it is early days.
    You're probably right (as a scholar you will know better than I) that within the big picture this is simply the case of Buddhism slowly finding a new expression in a new location, finding a way to fit into a new culture, but at a local level, the types of conversations, the sharing of ideas and a new form of independence in thought towards Buddhism by westerners is definitely something radical in my experience and different from 15-20 years back when I first started meditating and is mirrored in conversations I have with old friends and acquaintances who are still enamoured with the 'pure wisdom' of their Tibetan/Japanese/Thai teacher.
    I recall the arrogance of Buddhist teachers in proclaiming that their Buddhism was the best and that Western philosophy, other religions are all inferior. Although expressed at different levels of intensity, the result was the same, a refusal of the validity of other voices outside of Buddhism. I experienced this in the UK in almost every Buddhist centre I went too.
    It's a beginning. I know you've been critical of most of these guys, but it seems fair to say that on many levels there is innovation taking place even if it is very early days. In a way I think I have made a call for a shift towards the more radical edge of 'Post-traditional Buddhism in this article. Although I have no idea what that would be as of yet. It seems to be a shifting possibility in present times and you are part of that however directly or indirectly.
    So, only one question remains, will you be shredding my comments now, or later 🙂

  18. Bob Sander says:

    Great stuff! Enjoyed it. A welcome change.

  19. lee rogers says:

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

    A Dhamma Rain Shower:


    Broken Buddha:

    review halfway down at:

  20. 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.

  21. korin says:

    I've always been aware of a bit of a divide in western Buddhists which I was reminded of in reading your article – between the 'hobbyists' and, well, the others, who seem too few and isolated as yet to denominate. The hobbyists, for me, are those happy to turn spiritual practice into a 'pursuit' in the old meaning of the word, adhering to what's there rather than involve (trouble?) themselves by broaching the fundamentals of what their practice proposes to achieve and assessing how this might be applicable in a modern context. The others I've always seen as kind of meta-Buddhists, and so long as they don't fall into the trap of meta-everything else I can't see how it could be unhealthy to conduct a bit of an examination into what works and what doesn't. That said, I'd also agree with one of the comments above which seems to warn against the problem of letting the pendulum swing too far the other way – if excessive emphasis is placed on the rational and intellectual and we all just end up sitting in forums and posting comments on blogs or articles and skipping the fundamentals…
    Off to meditate…

  22. lee rogers says:

    This speculation has been going around of a global reform movement, and there's plenty of evidence for it. The OP's articulating an idea of where Buddhism is headed. I might add that whether it's an empiricism-compatible dharma vehicle, or a buddha-centric one, what it WON'T be is a Buddhalotrous, orthodox, authoritarian, or fact-resistant creed.

    And it's not just the OP, the process has been ongoing since the late 1960's, starting with Chogyam Trungpa's Shambala Training, later with the emergence of the cognitive behavioral science's third wave of DBT & ACT therapies. Many dharma teachers are exploring this new territory right along with the cognitive behaviorists, so this isn't just some indulgent speculation that the West is inventing something new – to the extent that any syncretic adaption blends things in surprising ways, it is indeed *NEW*.

    We are witnessing what happens when a gnostic & experiential-based religion is exposed to empiricism: It finds itself adapted as an entirely new vehicle with a whole new vernacular. The next wave of behaviorism – an incipient non-dual fourth wave – will only further this revolution as it becomes adapted as a Western, humanist vehicle. Cognitive psychology and progressive Buddhism are already communicating with each other, and the alliance appears certain to continue.

    So Glenn, yes, Buddhism is a big tent, but then that might also include the mindless pablum of the Sinhalese & Burmese merit-indulgency (we can thank Buddhaghossa for that mess), the cargo cultism of the Buddhalotrous Nichirenites (free spirited but nuts) & the authoritarian Lotus-Confucianism of SGI — all those are as radically divergent from any semblance of the Dharma as this new amalgam now arising in the West!

  23. Glenn Wallis says:

    Hi Matthew. I agree that there are some real differences between, say, traditional Tibetan or Japanese forms of Buddhism and what you and others are now calling "post-traditional." But the old and the ostensibly new have, I think, more in common than is obvious at first glance. The ways that the "post-traditionalists" are replicating the same old belief system can be subtle, and deceptive. Many of the posts at our blog attempt to tease out some of these subtleties and deceptions.

    It would be too large a project to detail the numerous ways that Hokai Sobol, Ted Meissner (Secular Buddhist Association), Stephen Schettini, Vince Horn (Buddhist Geeks), Kenneth Folk, and Ken McLeod (Unfettered Mind) fit so cleanly into the age-old trajectory of x-buddhist history. Ted Meissner, for instance, has replicated almost to perfection the Protestant Buddhism of the old Theosophists. You mention McMahan, ironically, as identifying features that people like Meissner "radically" shift away from. Just the opposite is true. McMahan includes as features of the modernist Buddhist trajectory rationalism, scientific naturalism and Romantic expressivism. McLeod and Schettini can be spotted as old-time Tibetanists from outer space. Same for "Hokai" Sobol and Zen.

    But I don't want to get into those kinds of details. The main point, for me, is that in perpetuating this idea that these people and their organizations represent "radical" x-buddhist change you miss a real opportunity. In my psot "The Power of Negative Thinking," I argue that in not recognizing the difference between rhetoric and reality, in missing the contradiction between these two, we deny ourselves the very promise and potentialities inherent in these peoples' x-buddhist ideology of awakening, etc.. Imagine some new political party were to come on the scene, promising to create a structure for realizing, say, equality, among citizens. The fact that terms like "post-traditional" and "radical" are used to differentiate the new party from the old admits to the actual necessity of those features for realizing the goal of equality. The party get going, creates its platform, sends out its representatives to give talks, publishes tracts, etc. And, to a discerning observer, it turns out that the new party is simply mimicking the old. Worse: it mimics the old, but does its best to obscure this fact. An opportunity is lost. Proven, though, is the "post-traditionalists" rhetorical assertion that genuine radicalism is required to break out of the established ways.

    Really, I have to wonder whether the people you mention (David Chapman excluded) are just willfully ignorant concerning their so-called "post-traditional radicality." All of them (you included, as life coach?), could fairly be seen as having an invested interest in belonging to the x-buddhist club. Whenever, throughout its history, x-buddhism has met commerce, the result has invariably been just what we're seeing now: an unthinking mish-mash of platitudinous affectations packaged as just the opposite: serious, rigorous, honest investigations into matters of crucial human importance. For anyone who cares to see, they most certainly are not that.

    If the people you mentioned are so serious about this business of becoming "post-traditional" and "radical," why do they refuse to engage us at Speculative Non-Buddhism? Think about it: given the radicalness of the task at hand, isn't even the most rigorous, brutal exchange of ideas worth it?

    Think about it some more, will you?


  24. Glenn. Love it. I appreciate your time and hopefully you remember me from various visits to your blog. Although I have got a lot from reading your blog, and I’ve read many of the posts by you, Tom and Matthias, there is a central issue for me that leaves much of the great deconstruction over at your blog wanting. What’s the alternative? Now, I don’t mean at the level of thinking, studying, reading, enquiring and so forth, but at the level of practise, of day to day management of one’s life, of the matter of reducing actual and existential pain, becoming more aware of the layers of conditioning, confusion and co-dependency with the internal and external factors that make life at times so difficult, which are often effectively tackled through Buddhist methods of working with the breath, with sensations with feelings, emotions, pain, and thought.
    As I wrote at your blog a while back, we still need a form of practise that helps with living in a body, in a culture, on this Earth with all its paradoxes, injustice, mess and challenges. For sure your call for ‘Buddhists’ and ‘Buddhist sympathisers’ to think, and to do so critically, and not only within the safe confines of Buddhist rhetoric is admirable, needed and timely, but most folks, as far as I can tell, come to Buddhism to start becoming more present in their lives and start relating more effectively to the raw material of their day to day existence and not engage in elite level thinking and analysis, however valuable that can be. At the level of nuts and bolts daily teaching, people generally ask for guidance on techniques to follow that are effective, doable and that can fit into their lives. Pragmatic rather than ideological aims are more common amongst the ‘Western Buddhist Sympathiser’ archetype that McMahon describes.
    Teaching Buddhist techniques in a secular mode as Batchelor and Schettini do is certainly preferable to trying to adopt an Asian form of Buddhism with its inherent cultural, political and foreign forms. Perhaps you can help in not only offering an analysis of where they are going wrong, and where the process they are alluding too is incomplete, but offer a practical means for achieving a radical reworking of Buddhism, or non-Buddhism for that matter, that can provide a framework and methodology for making the rhetoric reality. For now, they and a few others seem to be a good alternative to Lama whats’it, and Geshe knowitall. It’s a work in progress that needs more people to work on it.
    Most of the Buddhists I’ve met in the last 20 years, as in 99.9%, have very little interest in challenging the typical structures of authority found in most traditional Buddhist structures and even discussing the points I raised in my post is avoided, or seen as a threat to the status quo and has lead to me being ejected from two Buddhist forums over here in Italy in spite of me having a generally civil tongue. Perhaps you haven’t experienced this level of disinterest in the bigger picture of Buddhism as a culture and are used to a different reaction from the Buddhists you engage with in the flesh? Obviously you’re familiar with it online. You teach meditation and I’m wondering what and how you present meditation to students and what types of reactions you get from those perhaps expecting the Buddhism they’ve seen on TV and in the magazines.

  25. (Second part of reply) …I consider myself relatively intelligent but in lacking any background in western philosophy and advanced academic levels of Buddhists studies, I do the best I can to navigate the intellectual landscapes that are laid out at your blog, but I struggle at times, and can’t imagine what you might expect from those less curious about the western intellectual heritage that at times is simply the realm of specialists.
    I have the impressions at times that you view ideology, and x-Buddhism, as hermetically sealed prisons in which those associated with x-Buddhism’s various forms cannot escape except through radical and destructive analysis and criticism. I honestly don’t know how it is internally for the folks mentioned in my blog post, but personally I don’t feel so embedded in the x-Buddhism form that you have defined at your blog. I find the dichotomy of Buddhist insider-outsider a fascinating dynamic and tension that forces me to examine my assumptions, claims and sense of identity in how I relate to the phenomenon of Buddhism and of being human, and the notions of freedom, death, responsibility, entrapment, being a citizen, being part of an economic and political reality and so on. It is wonderful raw material for thinking and exploration, but it is not the end of the conversation, or the game. It’s a work in progress and part of the reason I persist with your blog, but also with reading about and works by those western philosophers that resonate; Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger for example, but its early days. The challenge of engaging with these thinkers can be both threatening and exhilarating, but I don’t feel challenged as a Buddhist by this process, but as a man. Buddhism I guess is something I do on occasion, rather than something I am, if that makes any sense? And so, therefore, there is a negotiation of role, of relationship and renegotiation. Within that play there is great learning to be had.
    I agree with you, I would love to see a fuller engagement between yourself and Buddhists figures. I mentioned that at your blog too. The old issue of tact pops its head up though again. I don’t mind your style at all, in fact I enjoy it, although at times I can’t help but think you could use your sizeable intellect to take encouraging engagement from these folks as part of the challenge of your approach to argument. You have so much to offer. I don’t know how important it is for you to be heard though or really what your goal is ultimately? The internet makes it so easy to switch off too and tune out of whatever you don’t like. People have no obligation to engage with you, so whose ears are you trying/hoping to reach? What would be a desirable result from your work ‘on’ Buddhism and the x-Buddhism beast? Not just at the NSB blog, but for you personally?
    Finally, I like this line and it leaves me curious:
    “I argue that in not recognizing the difference between rhetoric and reality, in missing the contradiction between these two, we deny ourselves the very promise and potentialities inherent in these peoples' x-buddhist ideology of awakening.”
    Could you say more on the doing of this? Of teasing out that potential and promise?

  26. My reply below is in two parts as the site can't handle longer replies. Please consider both before replying. I have happily given your words some thought. I could say a lot more, but this will do as a start…

  27. Bob Sander says:

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

  28. I've just worked out that you have to click on that nice little arrow to get them back up where it says replies. Some of use are slow I guess Bob! Me included 🙂

  29. […] 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 […]

  30. […] 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 […]

  31. 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…

  32. Thanks for your comment Jeff. It was full of interesting points.

    Best not to question authority though I guess Jeff? I think you have to appreciate that this article began as a thought, then an exploration of emerging trends and it speaks to an approach to Buddhism, traditional or otherwise, that emerges out of years of practice for many of those mentioned in the article. I myself have been following Buddhism for about twenty years with the majority of those in traditional Tibetan Buddhist sanghas, so your notion that those curious about reworking, or re-engaging with Buddhism on differing terms to those promulgated by the tradition itself is inaccurate: they are not a gang of internet trolls. The reason why so many folks are questioning tradition is because they have spent considerable time in them. Not everyone of course, but many yes. Have you considered that it may be the failings of traditional expressions of Buddhism that have driven some folk to begin to question openly and seek alternative voices, approaches and relationships with Buddhism?
    You contradict yourself, in the first paragraph you speak of a monolithic 2,500 year old tradition and then complain that Traditional Buddhism is unfairly lumped into a single form ignoring variety in modern interpretations of Buddhism by the likes of Chodron, Kornfield at al. Perhaps you should study a bit more of Buddhism’s history outside of your traditions interpretation of it? Thich Nhat Han, Kornfield and Chodron are best selling Buddhist authors who have well mastered the capatlist strategy for acquiescence to money’s dictates. They all represent a modernising of Buddhism and a rebellion of sorts from what went before.
    Western society has positive and negative aspects and you have pointed out clearly many of the defects it has including consumerism and solipsism. It of course has many positives and one of those is the creation of space for creative responses to traditional structures. I don’t think it is ever an us or them scenario because of this. Reworkings of Buddhism have taken place since the Buddha did his thing and you can still find pretty much all of the forms that have emerged since that day alive and kicking all over the globe. If you want to argue against reinvention then you would need to discard every form of Buddhism alive today as they are all reworkings of past ‘traditional’ and ‘perfect’ forms to one degree or another. The vacuous approach to deep dharma work that you imagine to be happening is actually best found on Oprah and in the pages of Eckhart Tolle than amongst those reshaping Buddhism.
    I’ve always believed that a tradition can stand on its own two feet if it genuinely has something to offer in the way of a doable path. So, what are you afraid of? A new form of Buddhism could be invented in which folks chant a mantra all day in the hope of getting money….oh, wait, that already exists. Or, a new expression of Buddhism could exist in which enlightenment is promised through playing Pacman in a nappy, well, would the tradition you follow (I assume you follow one with your feisty comment) still exist? Most likely.
    Tradition means institution and they have inherent problems which often are hidden by the rhetoric of those who sustain that tradition. One of the key problems with authority is the nature of power in most traditional teacher-student relationships. One only has to see what's taken place with Sogyal Rinpoche, or the long line of Japanese and American Zen teachers taking sexual advantage of their students, or the dharma centre purse to see that unquestioning allegiance to authority is not only intellectually undesirable, but dangerous if coupled with naivety and ‘total faith in one’s guru’. This is an immensely problematic aspect of traditional Buddhism that must be addressed here in the West. Does it mean that we have to throw this model out entirely? No, but it does mean renegotiating and that entails bringing western values regarding power dynamics to play in sanghas and the student-teacher relationship.
    The point is not to get into a fight over whether traditional or post-traditional approaches are better, superior, or other. It’s to present possibilities and allow creativity to emerge which is an inevitability as Buddhism has revealed its plan to stay in the West.

  33. It's interesting how perspectives differ. Old Jeff below sees it as totally opposite to you with these new, rebellious folks as armchair meditators and internet Buddhist trolls. Some seem to believe that following the advice of your teacher is more important that finding your way with the advice of your teacher as a possibility. I think it still all stems from the notion of the tradition and the teacher as infallible. It's slightly frustrating to me that folks will give away autonomy for the sake of authority. The need to believe in certainties is so rooted in the psyche, whether it's a teacher, path, political party or imagined God, or Super-Buddha that any challenge to that authority seems to spark quite a reaction.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. You are set in your conclusions Jeff. Perhaps you'd be kind enough to at least provide a roll call of these supremely gifted teachers you allude to?
    You sound as if you're following Tibetan Buddhism by your strong allegiance to wise all knowing compassionate teachers. I love the insinuation you make that Buddhism is in the hands of the elite, should remain in the hands of the elite, and that they, 'the highly trained and compassionately skilled teachers', should dominate the Buddhist landscape with their actions, when and where they see fit. I guess we should bow to their supreme wisdom and like with the kings, princes and landowners of old feel humbled and awed by their specialness and hope that a morsel of their greatness descends to our lowly depths.
    You should obviously quantify your statements about expertise by defining who these teachers are, what level of expertise they are required to have before reaching the ranks of the excellent, and finally how we can distinguish between the good ones and the bad ones. I've plenty met of both and I found that most of the disciples enamoured by them could not tell the difference.
    But Really, the great new Jeff is that you can follow the form of Buddhism you like, keep your opinions and not at all feel threatened by innovation happening elsewhere, whether it be based on craving and Americanised individualism, or open curiosity, enquiry and experimentation: this is another wonderful aspect of living in a non-medieval modern society. It has its faults, plenty, but being born into a single religion which has a monopoly on the truth is not one of them. Thank god..scratch that…thank democracy, secularism, plurality and an end to hegemonic religious world-views that we can choose who and what to believe, how to practice and experiment and learn in multiple ways.

  38. 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?

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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

  42. 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.