Consensus Buddhism, Mindful Mayo and Soy Latte

I did a little digging into the buddhist blog world over the weekend and found some interesting stuff. Seems to me the level of discourse and buddha-self-reflection is on the increase in the cyberwhirl. So I added some links to my blog roll on the right sidebar.

Amongst it all, the Buddhist Geeks interview with David Chapman about Consensus Buddhism stood out. Chapman sees the contemporary dharma scene in the US as having come to consensus about the following principles as essential across tradition:

1) inclusivity 2) individualism 3) egalitarianism 4) niceness and 5) mindfulness.

Good stuff, right? Well, each becomes problematic when generalized to the point of excluding other points of view. I agree with Chapman across the board. One of the freshest Buddhist critiques since Wilber’s Boomeritus harangue.

I’ll just touch a couple of the five elements here to give you a taste. Chapman compares Consensus Buddhism’s mindfulness to mayonaisse:

I was shopping at a holistic supermarket a few weeks ago and I saw this product they have called mindful mayonnaise. And you know the word mindfulness has been smeared out so far that it could mean anything. It’s just anything you like. You say, “Oh yes, that’s mindful.” If you don’t like, you’d say, “You’re not being mindful there.” Mayonnaise is a good metaphor for this approach to Buddhism. It’s sort of homogenous bland and beige.

Okay, you might say, but what’s wrong with “niceness.” Chapman says,

Consensus Buddhism has got an excessive emphasis on emotional safety. It’s very non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful and this is certainly appropriate for children of a certain age and maybe for people who have somehow been severely emotionally hurt. But I find it sort of repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grown ups.

That’s one of his more strongly made points.

Most interesting for me is the power his idea has to explain the sparsity of young people and multi-ethnics in the American dharma scene.

Consensus Buddhism was a creative solution to the problems of mostly white, middle class, well-educated hippies who came of age in the 60′s, you see. Consensus Buddhism was formulated and maintained by that cohort for that cohort. Chapman thinks the psychic-dike they created (maintained largely by group think) now has some holes in it. Thank Buddha.

As one of the just-a-little-bit younger people at various teacher meetings over the years, I’ve seen the generational nature of Consensus Buddhism and long looked forward to its demise. One aspect that I’d add to his list is emotional catharsis – don’t leave a meeting without one, seems to be the doctrine.

Consensus Buddhism is like going to a coffee shop and finding only soy latte on a menu guarded by greying, group-thinking dharma police.  Time to try the shop down the street.

In a post-modern, global era, we need many Buddhisms. Let the ten thousand flowers bloom.

On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
A Goose in a Bottle – How Will You Be Free?
  • Cliff Clusin

    I vow to stop being nice to white people in their 60′s.

  • doshoport

    Hi Cliff,

    Not exactly the point, old friend. It’s the other people that you should stop being nice too.



  • James

    Hi Dosho.

    I haven’t found the Dharma in the West all that nice. But, then I hang out with you…

    Seriously, is there cheap Dharma going around? Sure. Is it in the driver’s seat? I don’t think so.

    While I’m having trouble putting my finger on it precisely, when I read various rants about “consensus Buddhism,” I get a similar sense as when I hear people utter those words “this may not be politically correct…”


  • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

    One issue with Chapman’s “consensus Buddhism” issue, which he’s been pushing on the Web for quite some time — in other of his essays, Chapman makes it clear that he thinks all western Buddhism is like this. He makes no distinction between “bookstore Buddhists” and their pop-cultural version of Buddhism, and people who are committed students of a particular tradition, or even ordained priests and teachers. It’s all mayonnaise to him. He also thinks western Buddhism is largely an invention, since Asian Buddhism doesn’t have much to offer. For example, last year he wrote –

    “Now the problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against.

    “So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with ‘nice’ vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. Which is, roughly, ‘political correctness,’ or the ‘green meme.’”

    I think it’s more correct to say that “pop cultural” western Buddhism really doesn’t teach much about sila, or the Precepts. People interested in Buddhism are reading this book or that book, or attending occasional lectures, and getting a lot of (mis)information on the Web, and the bulk of this is pushing the benefits of meditation or mindfulness and not much else.

    And without the benefit of the personal guidance of a dharma teacher, they never get a solid grounding, a systematic education, in actual Buddhism — the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Precepts, the Perfections, etc. And this is just as true of 20-somethings today as anyone else. It’s not a generational thing, from what I’ve seen.

    And prajna? Forget about it. IMO mayonnaise is what you get when you don’t have a teacher rubbing your nose in sunyata and saying, look! What is this?

    I recently posted a quote about the essential nonexistence of the self on my blog, and several commenters said oh, that just some peripheral Zen teaching; that doesn’t have anything to do with most of Buddhism. It isn’t just that they don’t understand sunyata/anatta, which is understandable; I don’t think they’ve even been exposed to it. It’s just something they’ve heard of that they think is optional.

    I agree that part of the issue is that Buddhism largely was introduced to the West through the “beats” and the 1960s counterculture. But I think the bigger problem now is that it’s being co-opted by the pop psychology self-improvement movement. And that’s not going to go away. So I don’t think waiting for us aging hippie Baby Boomers to die off is going to solve anything.

  • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

    BTW, I am 60 years old and am often not nice.

  • doshoport

    Thanks for all the comments. Seriously, Cliff, the point is that it at least offers a cogent theory that explains who’s sitting on the zafus in most places. That gives information that we can choose to act on or not. And agree with or not, of course.

    James, I think this is an area of disagreement. I do think that Consensus Buddhism (which is often quite pricey) is in the drivers seat at this point.

    Barbara, there’s a lot in your comments so I will digest them for a bit but I don’t agree w/ Chapman about ethics, now that you point his position out to me. The problem and the virtue of over-arching theories is how they explain everything.

    Harry, I tried to post your last comment but it disappeared. So I’ll make no comment.

  • Harry

    Thanks for doing that, Dosho. That’s my comment on theories of everything! ;-)

    Happy Everything,


  • Anagarika Eddie

    I think if you seriously meditate, and then be who you are and be true to yourself instead of trying for some ideal, and further observe the results for you and for those around you, you can answer your own questions. The key IMHO is regular and correct concentration/tranquility meditation as taught by the Buddha (Anapanasati Sutta) along with choiceless awareness or Vipassana meditation.

  • Oreb

    Nice > macho Buddhism any day of the week. If anything the neo-conservative western buddhists seem to long for a consistent Credo a la Christianity that Im not sure the old zen-masters would recognize. We could use a bit of that ancient don’t know in this age of warring certainties.

  • doshoport

    I just enjoyed a cup of coffee and re-read Barbara Hoetsu’s comments above. I agree that the Buddhism-lite thing isn’t limited to the greying generation. Some of the books I receive for review from publishers trying to scoop up the younger readers and reflect a near total lack of training.

    That said, it does seem to me that the way Buddhism was originally re-packaged for the West is the source of the problem. And I think Barbara is right that waiting for the old hippies to die off won’t solve the problem.

    I encourage readers here to see her serious blog at which I’ve added to my blog roll.

    Thanks Barbara and I wish you and all the Empty Hand community a wonderful 2012.