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Monday, 29 December 2014

"Ancient Buddhism": as Invented by Victorians and Ex-Hippies

Unless you are at least moderately involved in meditation, Buddhism, eastern spirituality or the new age, there's probably no chance you've heard that S.N. Goenka has died.  You won't even know who he is.
But there's a good chance he affected your life.  If you have ever "tried" meditation at all, and it wasn't some wacky new-age guided visualization, there's a fairly good chance that it was HIS meditation. If you were ever doing anything related to "mindfulness" whether in a meditation class, as physical therapy, reading a book or article about it, or in a business seminar; if you've ever done "vipassana" meditation at all, it was his vipassana.

And I just about literally mean HIS; in the sense of being invented by him, or rather by his teacher's teacher's teacher and almost single-handedly brought to the west by Goenka.  But this meditation was his and NOT, as you might have believed, invented by The Buddha Himself.  Rather, it was an invention by part of what was called the "Buddhist Modernist" movement in southeast Asia.

Westerners tend to be very naive about Buddhism.  Some of the more educated ones understand that there's more than one type of Buddhism and that these are fairly different; but even then there's this ridiculous assumption that somehow Buddhism doesn't have all the same kinds of problems that you see in western religions. They also assume that, unlike Christianity (which they are often quick to point out does not often seem to follow the original teachings of Jesus), somehow modern Buddhism is (with slight regional variations) the original and direct philosophy and practices of the Buddha that has (at the very least in terms of the central "point") remained pure and intact for 2500 years. The truth is that, as much as any other mainstream religion, 90% of Buddhism has nothing to do with its founder's intentions and everything to do with either serving to prop up local social paradigms (to give spiritual reinforcement to what a certain demographic thinks of as "good" or "how things ought to be") or just as often to serve as a tool for power-groups (priesthoods, governments, and sometimes businesses) to promote their particular agenda.

In the case of "Buddhist Modernism", it arose in the mid-1800s as an attempt to "reform" an Asian tradition that had fallen into profound decline, by infusing it with modern "rational" Western ideas in order to use it as a tool to resist imperialism and compete with Christian missionaries.  It is as much inspired by German Philosophy and wacky western Theosophists than by the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha).  Its not even that it was a "revision" of old meditation techniques. No, because by the 19th century when all this was happening (yes, vipassana meditation is only about 140 years old at best!) there had been no Southeast Asian monks practicing meditation for ages.  Buddhist Monks at that time didn't meditate; they made offerings, prayers, funerals, exorcisms, maintained temples, recited and repeated sutras, gave blessings to people, houses, cows, etc. and generally acted as Priests. So the "meditation" of the Buddha was unknown ,and Goenka's teacher's grand-teacher Ledi Sayadaw had to INVENT "Vipassana" by a combination of trying to engage in guesswork from the old Buddhist scriptures (which no where give clear instruction on just HOW to meditate) and pulling ideas out of his own ass.

The attempt to "restore" meditation to Southeast Asian Buddhism (and likewise, to "erase superstition" from Zen Buddhism in Japan, where the Japanese government literally ordered the Zen Schools to use German Philosophers as their inspiration!) was in order to make it seem less like the "heathen superstition" that the European powers were calling it, and more like a "modern", "rational", "philosophical" and dare I say even "Scientific" system of practice!

In other words, the Buddhism of S. N. Goenka was Victorian Buddhism; invented as an important counter-colonial tool by those Asian states that resisted European influence, they "modernized" their religion in just the same way that they sought to modernize their industry, army, or education system.  (note: this was not unique to Buddhism; something very similar happened with Hinduism in India for the very same reasons; and modern Hatha Yoga (what almost everyone thinks of as "yoga" today) has only existed within living human memory, as in: there are people alive today who are older than what most westerners think of as the "ancient traditional yoga" they do in their trendy studios or the local community hall)

None of this would be such a big deal, except that Goenka (along with a few other "Buddhist Modernist" fans of "rational" Buddhism) brought his techniques to the west, where in the 1960s it was widely embraced by the baby-boomer generation, and increasingly so in the 70s, 80s and 90s.   And it was from this basis, and (falsely) attributing this as the authentic real-deal "teachings of the Buddha" to give it authority, that they created the western Buddhist Consensus paradigm. 

The problem is: the Western Buddhist consensus sucks massive ass.  Partly because of the Victorian sentiments of the main sources of inspiration for that consensus (Reformed Zen and Rationalist Vipassana Theraveda); and of course partially because the Baby Boomers felt that the Universe itself revolved around their Asses and therefore whatever their "values" were must be those of the Buddha.

What we've ended up with, increasingly so over the last 30 years, is a Buddhism that is almost useless.  Its a Buddhism that doesn't talk about Enlightenment, or even Altered Consciousness. It only ever talks about "transformation" in the "self-help" sense of Pop Psychotherapy in terms of being emotionally stable or happy or more effective in business or better at relationships, and never in the sense of the transformation of consciousness into Enlightenment.  It has thrown out a lot of superstition that was probably not very useful, sure, but its also thrown out some of the most basic elements of what made Buddhism work as an initiatory and esoteric system: the authenticity of the Enlightenment experience, Guru-yoga, Devotion; it has even largely downplayed the importance of concentration-states practices (which are the flipside of vipassana's "insight" and utterly essential to actual spiritual progress beyond a certain point; without concentration practice you just end up a go-nowhere meditative midget running around in the same circles over and over again).  It has grotesquely twisted notions about the relationship between meditation and emotions; the Consensus has made it so that western Buddhists aren't supposed to "feel" anything too strongly; they're supposed to smile gently and talk about loving-kindness (never just LOVE, no; its always 'loving-kindness' which is a pathetic weasel-word) but in their eyes a successful Buddhist should never actually feel anything too strongly (that would be "overcoming attachment", if you're a Germano-Buddhist Rationalist philosopher, I guess; it has little to do with anything the Buddha was about).  This has coincidentally led to a lot of would-be Buddhists getting very troubled when they find that they still feel strong emotions in spite of all the (spinning in circles, mostly worthless) vipassana they're doing, and those who don't just quit in frustration often choose to resolve this little inconvenience by a combination of emotional repression and putting on a fake attitude (which in fact is just about the opposite of what one would think to be the point).

To the Consensus Buddhists, "Buddha-nature" means just a general state of do-nothing vaguely-pleasant "niceness"; a softly breathing gently-talking starry-eyed slow-moving human-pandabear that spouts meaningless platitudes and doesn't ever feel very much or do very much.  Its the opposite of the real concept of the Buddha: of the fully-realized human being.  Its so far from the fullness of humanity it isn't even funny.  Shit, its one "Om" away from a coma-victim.

And Goenka (again, along with a few other figures like Suzuki and Thich Naht Hanh) had a lot to do with this.  Almost all the major players in modern Western Consensus Buddhism: people like Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Lama Surya Das, and all the other aging-hippie luminaries, were taught meditation by these guys. They're the ones who've taken over and been allowed to define western concepts of Buddhism, and even of meditation itself, and to define what is proper 'spiritual' behaviour or values; which most often have NOTHING to do with Enlightenment or with Buddhist values, but are rather a rehash of Baby-Boomer values: tolerance, niceness, distrust of authority, rejection of ritual or tradition, egalitarianism to the extreme, social justice and causes, the idea that no one's personal delusions can be criticized, an anti-intellectual bent, a rejection of discussion and debate as "not nice" in favor of the ridiculous idea that all systems and all religions are not just inherently similar but also equally "valid", and the fundamental belief that spirituality is All-About-Me (with the concurrent definition of "spiritual work" as being "working on yourself", and usually borrowing more heavily from modern pop psychology dressed up in eastern drag rather than any authentic eastern (or western) esoteric sources). It is the post-hippie set of values (what Ken Wilber called the "Green Meme", as in "what you're allowed to and expected to believe in if you're a Spiritual Progressive of 20th Century North-america" (be it a progressive Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Pagan/Wiccan, general new age practitioner, or most strains of westernized versions of eastern religion).

Those teachers and schools that did not come from this background of "Buddhist Modernism + Hippie Green Meme" have for the most part been either extremely marginalized, or have been in some way or another brought (or more aptly "bought") into the fold.  The mainstream of Tibetan Buddhists, for example, have undergone a huge transformation from the 70s-era of intense Tantric teachers like Chogyam Trungpa, to a modern-day situation where they grossly downplay Tantric and other authentic practices in favor of selling classes and books that amount to westernized self-help guides full of empty platitudes about "the way to happiness" (usually involving "niceness") and Tibetan art-fairs, without any instruction of substance.  In the case of the Tibetans, this was done largely because it suits the Dalai Lama's political agenda vis-a-vis his public image to win points in his struggle to free Tibet, and because there were Tibetan hardliners that weren't very keen on teaching westerners serious stuff anyways, and because the guys that teach the most serious tantric stuff were not from the Gelug lineage the Dalai Lama belongs to and there's a lot of internal politics and very old rivalries affecting things behind the scenes.  And, frankly, because they realized there was WAY more money to be made, since there were WAY more westerners who wanted to pay for a Tibetan-themed new-age sideshow than there were westerners looking to do a lot of hard work in spiritual practice.

All this has had an effect beyond Buddhism's borders into all areas "alternative religion" in general.

There is, just now in the last decade, a counter-movement finally starting to emerge both within and without Buddhism, mostly spurred by the post-babyboomer generations that have come to feel that the vapid "niceness" of the Western Esoteric Consensus is shit.  They want something more profound than that, and are willing to break the back of the enormous Consensus-machine to get it, with just as much determination as the baby-boomers themselves once had to break free of the paradigm the generation before them had expected them to buy into.  It remains to be seen to what extent they might succeed.

Now, I'm not saying Goenka was a bad guy; or even that Buddhist Modernism was bad; or even that everything about the Baby-boomer Green Meme was bad.  Goenka introduced millions of people to meditation, however limited his system might have been, and however much it might have been further warped by the Hippie bullshit; there's still probably a tremendous amount of good that came of it (shit, his writings were among the very first things I ever read on the subject of meditation, for which I'm grateful).  Buddhist Modernism revived a dedication to meditation and stripped out a large amount (thousands of years worth) of superstitious and folkloric accumulated detritus from Asian Buddhism that had largely distorted it from the original purpose (though again, in turn it distorted it into a different direction).  The Baby-boomers freed western culture from a shitload of uptight repression and tradition and instilled many new values that no one could reasonably argue aren't incredibly worthwhile. 

Its just that, like anything else, in fact like the Buddha himself warned when he said (2500 years ago) that the authenticity of his teaching would last for about 500 years, and after that people should look elsewhere for Truth: the point gets distorted over time.  Paradigms tend to rot if left on top of the heap for too long.  And the sheer demographic push of the Baby-boomers has made their paradigm sit out in the sun for 20 years past its due-date. 

Goenka was an amazing man.  Few people make that much of an impact on the world, the kind of impact that can't be achieved by military or political or even economic power, but only by the power of ideas.  And he did it with a sincere effort to do good.  He was 90 years old when he died, and there's hardly a meditation practitioner alive, at least in the west, whom (whether they knew it or not) Goenka hadn't been influencing for their entire lives. But I kind of hope that with his passing, with the realization of his impermanence, we might finally get to see the impermanence of the notions that have come to be attached to the paradigm he helped greatly to impose on western alternative spirituality (and not just buddhism); and get some badly-needed reformation.  I sure as hell hope we won't have to wait another four decades until we've finally seen the last of the baby boomers' stranglehold on western Buddhism.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia

(originally posted October 1st, 2013)


  1. Of course there is also the fact that many of the "free Tibet" crowd so enamored with what they think is "Tibetan Buddhism" ignore, or are ignorant to, the horrific and tyrannical nature of Tibet prior to the Chinese conquest, which was as bad, or worse, than any atrocity committed by modern China in Tibet - a medieval regime based on slavery and misogyny of the worst kind. The Dalai Lama might not be responsible for what his predecessors did, but he represents a regime which was built on the back of slaves.

    So yes, Tibet should definitely be freed from Chinese imperialism, but it deserves a secular, democratic and independent government under modernist values, not a return to the "nostalgic past" of medieval despotism.

    1. Technically, the Dalai Lama IS responsible for what his predecessors did, since he WAS THEM.

      Mind you, in most of his past incarnations the D.L. died in infancy, often intentionally murdered by Gelug monks who wanted to keep up an eternal regency. The last D.L. incarnation before this current one only avoided dying as a kid because he literally fled the country; he had to escape his own people who were trying to kill him to hold onto their political power.

  2. You would probably be interested in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's book _Buddhist Romanticism_. Thanissaro convincingly argues that Western Buddhists have generally interpreted Buddhism through the lens of German Romanticism. In practice Buddhist Romanticism often overlaps with Buddhist Modernism, but conceptually they are distinct and Thanissaro's work is a major contribution to our understanding of the way Buddhist texts and teachings have been (mis-)read in the West.

    In general, I have found Thanissaro's talks and treatises to be an eye-opening introduction to authentic Buddhism--as opposed to the Buddhism that is taught by the followers of the Vipassana / Mindfulness movement. His website is