Modern Buddhism: the new koan?

So, a significant milestone in the life of this blog has just passed: the number of visitors to this site has just gone over 10,000 just 6 months after its birth amidst the agonies of a fractured Dharma community. No doubt the ‘popularity’ of this blog owes something to the ‘notoriety’ of myself and my fellow contributors to this blog. Curiosity about the eventual fate of the of the ousted management of the Dharma community is also a strong draw, as attested by the fact that about 40% of the visits have been to the news section of this blog. But the majority of visits have been to the actual blog posts themselves, which indicates that they did contain relevant and timely material, much of which raised questions and issues that many visitors have undoubtedly felt worth raising and worth thinking about. For Dharma study and practice, I think we can all agree, does involve some serious thinking for oneself, and such thinking always involves asking deep questions of both oneself and the ‘reality’ one apparently experiences.

Of course, for some visitors the raising of questions, especially about the validity of certain aspects of a traditional form of Buddhism is iconoclastic and evident of my guilt as an ‘impure’ Dharma practitioner. Actually,you can’t get more ‘traditional’ than an accusation of ‘impurity’, which looks very odd in a ‘modern’ cultural context! But I’m pretty sure that for a lot of other visitors the questions raised, not just by me but by many of the most respected Western Buddhists of our time, are pertinent and provocative enough to warrant a considered and careful response from any Dharma practitioner who cares about the way Buddhism evolves within our Western society, and especially about how traditional Buddhisms negotiate the difficult interaction with, and adjustment to, the various aspects of modernity, both self-evident and subconscious, that are unavoidable for all of us. I certainly see the dispute at Maitreya Centre as being derived in large part from unspoken and unexamined assumptions on both sides of the dispute about what the relationship between tradition and modernity should be, and the need for a dialogue about that relationship cannot be forever suppressed by the reliance upon secular law and constitutional procedure to settle every argument within the tradition, whichever tradition that is; sooner or later the skeletons of inappropriate grasping at traditional forms of authority or unskilful adaptations to modernity will burst out of the proverbial closet. If you doubt this, I recommend the incisive analysis of David L. McMahan in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (OUP USA, 2008). And no, just sticking the word ‘modern’ into the title of a book called ‘Modern Buddhism’ does not mean one has created the perfect union of modernism with Buddhism! And no, that is not a criticism of  THE book ‘Modern Buddhism’, written by you-know-who; merely to say that a book title like that cannot be taken literally as read, as if it were unproblematic. A modern Buddhism can indeed exist, but only after wading through, and hopefully resolving, a veritable Pandora’s box of paradoxes and contradictions. Actually, I think ‘Modern Buddhism’ is a naff title for an otherwise brilliant book that actually has precious little to do with modernism or any kind of ‘modern’ and which represents just one particular strand of one kind of Buddhism amongst a whole family of Buddhisms (some of them a lot more ‘modern’), and a kind of  Buddhism still very similar in many ways to its pre-modern form! There, that probably proves my ‘heresy’ once and for all, at least for those convinced that particular strand of Buddhism is perfectly pure and completely unequalled! But having the title at all is a classic admission of the overwhelming need, albeit unacknowledged, on the part of the publishers, to make sure that the book is compatible with enough of modernism to ensure its widest possible appeal to a ‘modern’ audience, even though the essential content of the book is supposedly traceable to the Buddha of 2,500 years ago and therefore authentically pre-modern to the point of being ancient! Now there’s a paradox for you! Or perhaps a new koan?

Nevertheless, the trauma of losing a Dharma community and a tradition that I worked so hard for and which I thought I would belong to for the rest of my life has been severe, but it has eventually been purifying and positive, opening up the time and space in my mind to ask questions of my own Dharma study and practice and to discover new depths and meanings to it that have given me plenty to follow up on over the years. Yes, I might be stuck in dukkha and, who knows, perhaps driving myself ever deeper into it, but wisdom has definitely shone through the dukkha; a fierce kind of wisdom, no doubt, but then, as T.S.Eliot would say, “we are consumed by either fire or fire”. The dispute may be unresolved still, and may look acrimonious from an observer’s standpoint, but it has ironically resolved a lot of psychological issues for me and made me stronger even though, once again, to external appearances it looks like I lost everything (whereas, in fact, I gained more than I ever dared to). Ironically, it is the teachings of the tradition that now has no place for me that has helped me be strong enough to stand up to the dysfunctional organisational stratagems of the tradition which undermine the mandate of that very tradition itself. Another paradox, another koan…


The encounter of Buddhism with modernity: clash of titans?

Given the immense popularity of my last post about the debate between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt, I would like to refer readers to another, related debate between Stephen Batchelor and B. Allen Wallace which looks in even more detail at the encounter between traditional Buddhisms and modernity. B. Allen Wallace wrote an article entitled: Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist which Stephen Batchelor replied to with: An Open Letter to B. Allen Wallace. I find this debate equally stimulating and useful, and I think it is a debate which perhaps goes on consciously or subconsciously within a lot of Western Buddhist practitioners as there is bound to be a psychological tension between the kind of secular education most of us have had as we grew up in the modern West and the kind of traditional Asian Buddhisms that we developed a strong connection with. If that tension is acknowledged and consciously worked with, it can no doubt be creative and progressive for one’s practice, but if it is denied or repressed in favour of an uncritical acceptance of traditional doctrinal expressions of Buddhism or, indeed, in favour of outright rejection of traditional Buddhist doctrines as simply superstition and myth, then much of the richness and depth of Buddhism is closed off from one’s Dharma study and practice. The debate is important precisely because it touches on the very real existential dilemmas many of us face when trying in our own very human, very fallible ways to integrate the traditional forms of Buddhism we have learnt to cherish with the realities of the secular, scientific world view we have to work within and accept to a large extent as having a validity and relevance that traditional Buddhisms cannot ignore. Anyway, see what you think!

A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?

An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.

To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:

I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part. 

Later on Batchelor says:

I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.

And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”

To which Stephen Batchelor replied:

Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.

Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading  the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!


when devotion becomes destructive…

I came across a fascinating essay today by John Crook, entitled: Dangers in Devotion: Buddhist Cults and the Tasks of a Guru, which was a paper presented at the conference ‘The Psychology of Awakening II’ at Dartington Hall, October 1998. The essay is available at:

It is a long essay, deeply erudite and thoughtful, and one well worthy of concentrated study from start to finish. In it he talks about the emerging danger of some Buddhist organisations in the West descending into ‘cults’, and looks at ways in which this process can be avoided. In particular, he says:

These Buddhist cults resemble the guru-based institutions of Hinduism more than they do their Buddhist origins. In Hinduism, gifted and charismatic gurus become the focus of a personal cult of devotional practice and at any one time there are many of these for potential devotees to choose from. The loose framework of Hindu belief and practice allows a high level of personal choice in such matters but not all gurus are free from the many forms of ethical corruption. How do such ‘cults’ arise? The psychology of such processes has become clear in recent years. Individual identity requires the formation of key values for which social approval is given and without which an individual experiences painful alienation. Traditionally these were given by the society in which a person lived, and we had monolithic religions dominating large areas of the world. Since in contemporary society the philosophical basis for values has become culturally relative and science has for many removed the belief in supernatural forces, individuals are forced to choose between a range of equally valid interpretations of the cosmos and of the way to personal salvation. Once a ‘way’ is chosen it becomes an area of profound psychological investment so that anything that threatens it also threatens the self. On accepting an institutionalised value system personal identity is largely replaced by social identity – that is the individual identifies with the social norms of the group.

Value systems are based in what Muscovici has called social representations. These are ideas and attitudes that are seen to represent the “real” and which are believed to be the truth. Social identity is rooted in the adoption of representations of “truth” and anything that threatens their credibility thus comes also to threaten the person. When the fount of wisdom is a particular individual, an unthinking devotion may develop which in worst-case scenarios leads to the establishment of an accepted tyranny. When an individual finally rumbles what is happening and attempts to break away into independence and an acceptance of his or her existential aloneness the reaction of other believers is apt to be intense. The question must therefore be asked whether cults of this kind and with this psychological causation are compatible with traditional Buddhist understanding in which freedom from suffering remains the goal. This question is vital not only in relation to the institutions which we have been discussing but for all attempts to form an organisation in which ‘enlightenment ‘ is sought and within which teachers and their shadows operate.

Open Buddhism in the Context of Practice

On his deathbed the Buddha told his followers to use the Dharma as a guide not the teacher. His profound advice throws the individual back into himself and his questioning appraisal of what Dharma can be. It does not lie in the views of a teacher, however helpful these can be and however fine an exemplar he or she is, but in the heart where the meaning of selfhood resides. The path to such understanding is essentially a lone quest, just as it was for the Buddha. Guidance lies in the teachings not in a teacher. Essentially the Four Noble Truths, the principles of impermanence, emptiness and the law of interdependent causation lie at the heart of the matter and require experiential realisation not mere intellectual assent. While vehicles for the transmission of the Dharma are essential, realisation is essentially an individual matter in which clinging to identity and all forms of representation is abandoned.

What then is the role of the teacher? The vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen etc.) are perspectives on the Dharma with the power to induce realisation. The teacher is a facilitator of this individual process. Any attempt to be an authority on the scriptures, a paragon of virtue, or a defender of a faith misses the point. A great lama or a solitary yogin consulted in some remote cave only have Buddhist validity if they facilitate the insight of others. There are many skilful means, as the Lotus Sutra makes clear. There is no absolute truth which has to be believed. All views disappear in absurdity. Attachment to any representation is thus an error. Krishnamurti was right in arguing that any institutionalisation of religion becomes divisive and yet a vehicle for the Dharma needs a structure.

All schools of Buddhism hinge upon and return to the understanding of emptiness. This insight is conveyed in a variety of ways and nothing can be picked or chosen as more relevant than anything else. That which is relevant is that which works. As Wittgenstein advised – look for the use and not the meaning. If a device or an idea works that is enough, for there is no ultimately discoverable meaning. This means that when a great Zen master and a fine lama meet there are no barriers between them. Although one may be riding a horse and the other a camel they both survey the same view. If this is not the case, understanding of the Dharma has at some point been lost.

The implication of this is that the Buddha Dharma must be ‘open’. Even though individuals may subscribe to contrasting traditions of practice and viewpoint if there is openness to the underlying empty vision then understanding can arise. We need therefore to cultivate a tradition of ‘open Buddhism’ and only if we manage to do so will the Buddha Dharma find a place in the West free from cultic factionalism and argument.


Crook goes on to provide tentative suggestions for a ‘Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors’, which makes fascinating reading in the context of recurrent scandals and problems  in the West regarding Buddhist teachers who allow the dark side of their personalities to be projected onto their students and their dharma centres.  I really recommend a study of this code and its possible applications to the needs of dharma centres in our time.

Crook goes on to say that:

Democracy in Buddhist Institutions

There remains one final point. The problems of many Buddhist organisations have rested on the unlimited authority of the guru. This has often extended to matters of belief, practice, financial control and property. It is hardly surprising that mistakes have been made which have usually been as much a result of devotees’ lack of responsibility as it is due to the leader’s failure in self control and insight.

Cults can be profitably undone by democracy. All that is needed is proper attention to the creation of an institutional structure in which the power relations between guru and followers is balanced, in which problems and disputes can be raised and discussed and in which the formation of appropriate committees allows decision making processes reflecting the wishes of the membership. Many Buddhist institutions lack proper constitutional organisation and a prime recommendation may be that this issue be immediately addressed.

This task is not simple. The teacher is often the bearer of a lineage of teaching going back many centuries, maybe even to the Buddha himself. The teacher has received some form of transmission from his own guru to pass the way on to others. Those who have not received such transmission are hardly in a position to criticise the essential message. Too much democracy could mean that anybody’s version of what the Buddha may or may not have said could gain equal credence with an inevitable regression to an ill-prepared salad. It is rather the manner in which teachers present themselves, their attitude to others, their ethical stance and correctness in relationship and in financial concerns that become the legitimate focus of committees set up to monitor an institution’s well-being. It is to this concern that an institutional constitution should be directed.

Given the nature of the psychological process active in cults such a change may not be easy. It will often require grassroots action within the institution. Indeed, if these institutions are to survive, this will become essential. Further publication of destructive arguments such as those we have discussed here will be to the detriment of all Buddhist institutions in the West. It is time to set our houses in order.

The need for a truly ‘open Buddhism’ and a truly democratic and accountable constitutional structure within Western Buddhist organisations is, I feel, very urgent now if Western Buddhism, certainly in the UK, is ever to truly flourish and become harmoniously integrated within a liberal Western culture. Chieftains of the tribe of the Enkaytees would do well to take note.

A virtual Nalanda for our times?

One of the things which has impressed me in recent years is how some Buddhist traditions have successfully engaged with the age of the internet to such a degree that many excellent opportunities for studying Buddhist view and practice online has become available. This obviously makes Buddhism so much more available for serious, systematic study than it used to be, but interestingly it also makes it easier for people to be much better prepared and informed about Buddhism before they commit themselves to any particular method of practice or to any particular lineage of transmission. Also, it can ensure that  people are able to learn enough to be confident  in studying and practising entirely by themselves if they wish, although I suspect the need to engage with sangha face-to-face from time to time will, for most people, always be necessary to some extent. Below, I offer just a small sample of those online opportunities that I have so far discovered, or that I have some small knowledge of.

The Buddhanet website has been going a long time, is very well managed, and has a vast range of materials on it. It has a range of online study materials, all free. See:

Rangjung Yeshe Institute, an international centre for Buddhist Studies, offers courses in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali languages. The courses combine traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings with a modern Buddhist Studies perspective. All classes are held in the unique setting of a Tibetan monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. Students can earn BA and MA degrees in Buddhist Studies and Himalayan Languages or study for shorter, intensive periods. For visiting students, study-abroad programs in Buddhist philosophy and language as well as a range of intensive summer programs in Buddhist philosophy and related languages are offered.  It has an online learning programme, but there are fees for this. See:

The Triratna Community, formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, has a fantastic site full of excellent study materials, which are free and don’t require a prior commitment to the Triratna community, but which is a great preliminary for eventually making that commitment if one wanted to. Much of the material will be familiar to those who have studied already within the Tibetan tradition, but much will also be unfamiliar, as the study approach is very broad and encompasses materials from other Buddhist traditions. See:

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition now has a very well organised set of online study programmes which appear to be excellent for those who are particularly keen to study and practice Buddhism within the Tibetan tradition descended from Je Tsongkhapa. Some of the study content is free but much of it is only accessible after choosing a level of membership of Friends of the FPMT where a financial contribution is expected, but the rates appear very reasonable for the amount and quality of study materials that become accessible. See:

For those who want to go the whole hog and do an in-depth academic study of Buddhism, the University of Wales, Newport, does a distance e-learning course that leads to an MA/PG Diploma/PG Certificate in Buddhist Studies. I have myself successfully completed tow years of this course when exactly the same course was offered previously at the University of Sunderland, and as a result I achieved the PG Diploma. I can certainly vouch for the excellent quality of the course, which certainly gives one a thorough overview of the whole of Buddhism as it is practised in various ways throughout the world, and it hives one a very solid grounding in basic Buddhist philosophy. The course is not free. It costs £1,200 the first year, £2,400 for two years, or if you did the whole 3 years would cost £3,200 for 3 years. This is incredibly reasonable for a proper university course! See:


Just do a Google search for online Buddhist study courses. You’ll be amazed at what you find! I’ve learnt enough now to realise that no one single Buddhist tradition or lineage can justifiably claim to contain within it all the richness and potential of what the Buddha taught. An openess to, and willingness to engage with, many Buddhist traditions appears to me to be so much more creative and rewarding than confining oneself to just studying within one tradition only. I would claim that knowing more about traditions other than one’s own practice tradition makes one, at the very least, more aware of the nature and context of one’s own tradition and more appreciative of what unique gifts different traditions bring to the Buddhist table. Indeed, the internet age may be instrumental in creating a golden age of Buddhist study and practice, in which a virtual Nalanda and Vikramashila arises as the Buddhist university of our time.


Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and dropping out…

A legend that grew up around Shantideva relates that while reciting A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life to an audience of monks, he ascended into the sky and disappeared. This is said to have occurred when he uttered the words [of Nagarjuna]:

When neither something nor nothing

Remains to be known,

There is no alternative left

But complete non-referential ease.

By associating this vision of emptiness with Shantideva’s miraculous departure from the monastery, the legend suggests a symbolic release from the scholarly and moralistic constraints of monasticism into a life of unfettered ease and freedom. Having delivered his masterpiece, Shantideva shuns renown and seeks anonymity. Later fragments of biography tell of his employment as a palace guard, his departure to the mountains as a hermit, his living with a consort in Bengal. Shantideva’s abiding in emptiness leads him to the inexorable conclusion that to love the world entails disappearing into its midst to become no one.

Shantideva was not alone at this period in his rejection of institutional monasticism. A monk rising to preeminence within a monastery only to reject monasticism in favour of a return to the world is a common feature in the lives of the Buddhist tantric adepts (mahasiddha) of India. Like the Ch’an masters, their contemporaries in China, the tantric adepts sought to embody the Buddha’s teachings in the domain and language of everyday life and immediate experience. Both movements attempted to recover the vitality of a tradition which, while promising freedom, exhibits a curious proclivity to becoming mired in its own rules and dogmas.

pp35-36 of Verses from the Center: a Buddhist vision of the sublime, by Stephen Batchelor.

Sayings of the mad Yogi – 2

If scientists are right, then Buddhists are mad.

I don’t feel so mad today, I must improve.