A note on Liberal Buddhism
James Ishmael Ford

In his introduction to Stephen Batchelor's 1983 book Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, renowned western Buddhist John Blofeld described the book as "magnificent" and "inspiring." He then added how "the exposition is not intended to be exhaustive, as too much and too varied detail might mar its impact. Hence there are some important omissions such as the operation of karma and the concept of rebirth, both of which are crucial components of the Buddha Dharma."
Fourteen years later Batchelor published his reflections on karma and rebirth in his controversial broadside Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. Blofeld had died a decade before, so we will never know with certainty what he would have thought of this analysis which was in fact a radical departure from traditional expositions of the Buddha Way. It is unlikely the old Buddhist scholar and practitioner would have been happy.
In this book Stephen asserted "The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as 'karma.' While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than its cosmological implications."
As he developed this argument Stephen was presenting a modern, rational and secular vision of Buddhist teachings. A detailed consideration of Stephen's particular understanding of the Dharma lies beyond the scope of this reflection. But he is one of the first to systematically present perspectives held, often unconsciously, by many, possibly most contemporary western Buddhists.
What we find here, I suggest, is the meeting of east and west, of our underlying western rational and humanistic perspectives encountering the Dharma, challenging, being challenged and ultimately synthesizing into a new Buddhism. As one begins to look closely it becomes very hard to ignore the many assumptions held by the majority of western Buddhists that are different, sometimes by shades, sometimes radically, than those held by what might be called traditional Buddhists.
Maybe this can be framed more helpfully by saying there is a new Buddhism emerging, a Buddhism quite different from the traditional Buddhisms of east and south Asia. These shifts in assumption are as substantive as were those of Nagarjuna from what was taught before him, and many of these shifts are of great value. As such, they deserve to be noticed.
The assumptions of this new Buddhism are so pervasive among western Buddhists and among popular western Buddhist writers in particular, it is actually possible to not notice. And, of course, what we don't notice about ourselves is the most dangerous part of who we are. It can be profoundly misleading when, as is often the case in western Buddhist - and especially within the western Zen communities to which I belong- the claim is that one is transmitting an a-historical path, the once and future way of awakening, unchanged from when the teachings were first delivered from the mouth of the Buddha himself.
Donald Lopez, in his preface to A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West observes the seduction for new movements seeing themselves as a return to the pure ways of the traditions and the original teachers. This has been the case for many who hold contemporary Buddhist views, seeing themselves, truthfully ourselves, as returning to an original Buddhism and its tenants. For instance our appeal to the summation of the Four Noble truths, which like many other contemporary commentators I've used as a foundational statement of what Buddhism teaches, is in fact something of an innovation--not an emphasis commonly found in the teachings of traditional Buddhists.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, a western Buddhist monk - and a critic of both Stephen's book and our contemporary Buddhist movement - summarizes several tenants of the phenomenon, which he calls "Western Buddhism." As many of these perspectives are in fact held by some Buddhists of just about all traditional schools, (including, as some suggest, the current Dalai Lama) probably Donald Lopez's "modern Buddhism" is a better term.
There is much truth in the term "modern" particularly if one doesn't confuse that term too closely with "contemporary," as this new Buddhism has roots that go back more than a century. However, I'm inclined to find people do confuse modern and contemporary, so I find the term "liberal Buddhism" most generally appropriate as a description for this emerging and pervasive perspective.
Bhikkhu Bodhi notes three particular elements marking this liberal Buddhism. One is a shift from monastic to lay life as the "principal arena of Buddhist practice." Second, there is a significantly "enhanced position of women" in this newer Buddhism. And very important, here we also find "the emergence of a grass-roots engaged Buddhism aimed at social and political transformation." However, underlying all this, the Bhikkhu suggests, and perhaps even the most significant of the shifts, is a fourth element, often missed by those who've noticed and commented on this phenomenon.
This is a pervasive secularization of the Buddha way. As it is so foundational, I think we need to start with a reflection on that least examined assumption, the trending of liberal Buddhism to secularism. Let me cite one example. Most contemporary Buddhists particularly the Buddhists of south Asia tend to embrace what I would have to call a scientific rhetoric. This perspective sees Buddhist meditation disciplines as well as the teachings in general as "scientific." Of course this is not true.
There is no sense of "falsification," a possibility that if one does the practices and does not achieve liberation, then Buddhism is proven false. Rather, the adherents of this perspective are vastly more likely to say that one has simply not done the practices correctly. And some form of falsification is necessary in any scientific endeavor. Without this we're really talking about scientism, the upholding of an image of science as an icon, sometimes as an idol, but not in any significant sense, science.
The seed of this appeal to science for justification is twofold. One is the desire to be up to date, current, modern. This particularly had appeal in the nineteenth century when Buddhists were first asserting their insights as equal to or perhaps better than those offered by western religions. But the more significant reason for this embracing of a "scientific" assertion, is that Buddhism is profoundly empirical. Buddhist insight is based within experience, and Buddhist philosophies and psychologies all flow out of reflecting on those experiences. So, while empiricism is not science, it is the mother of science, and one can see how easily the claim can be made.
While this inclination to see the Dharma in scientific perspectives births in one of the traditional Buddhist schools, it continues to pervade much of today's liberal Buddhism. Appeals to contemporary physics as "proof" of some aspect of Buddhist doctrine or another is fairly typical of liberal Buddhism. Here, I might add, we find some real shadows, a whole collection of logical fallacies, starting with that old chestnut "appeal to authority."
And the other (and in some ways, more dangerous point) is that an unconscious scientism also inclines us to the lure of reductionism. This is also, I think, the great shadow of secularism. Here Buddhism becomes a nostrum for improving self-esteem or a tennis game or getting an edge in business or war. Here we find the danger is that of Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archeologist who when seeking Homeric Troy appears to have dug right through that level, destroying forever the city he so desperately sought.
Still, while shadowed, as with many things, this perspective is not without value. Out of this broad inclination to identify with the ideals of science, we find the willingness for liberal Buddhists to see the disciplines studied within scientific institutions. At first this was mostly in the realm of bio-feedback studies. While these undoubtedly have some value, they also tend to suggest the study of a horse through an examination of its feces. More recently there have been investigations of the relationships between meditation disciplines and various meditative states and neurophysiology. This is, I suspect, a harbinger of more serious and possibly more profitable examination of the meeting of Buddhist practice and psychology.
Continuing to explore the underlying assumptions of "liberal Buddhism" and its secular sense and how it plays out there is a profound shift toward lay practice. Here we particularly see some of the contours of western Zen, with its shift from Zen monastery to Zen center as the normative institution. Here we also encounter so much of the liberal Buddhist perspective. For instance, anyone who visits several western Zen centers finds women at every level of leadership in nearly all these institutions. And related to that, openly gay and lesbian people are almost uniformly accepted in these centers, also often in leadership positions. This is all unheard of in the east.
I think these shifts are significant and need our attention. Closely connected to this shift to centers of practice and the inclusion of women and homosexual persons in the life of western Buddhist communities is the central importance of Bodhisattva ordination. This is a significant shift in what is seen as normative ordained Buddhist leadership and it helps in the development of our contemporary western forms of liberal Buddhism.
Historically Buddhism has been led by vinaya monks, men who have taken the two hundred and fifty monastic vows associated with the order founded by Gautama Siddhartha. While there is a tradition of nuns, from the beginning women were only reluctantly allowed admission to the ordained order. This reluctance has taken shape in any number of restrictions, which has included a notorious set of additional rules where, among other things, nuns must first take their vows in their own community and then repeat the vows in front of the male order. From that point on, the most senior nun of whatever character or commonly understood wisdom is considered junior to the youngest and least insightful monk. Very telling.
While the Buddha is said to have allowed for the modification of "minor" rules, no group of monastics have ever been able to agree on what those minor rules are, and so, twenty-five hundred years later, there have still been no modifications of this gender inequity. In many places it has only gotten worse. In many Buddhist countries the vinaya order for nuns has died out, and women who wish to take up the monastic rule are not even considered proper nuns.
Many liberal Buddhists might raise reasonable objections to this state of affairs, but it is important that they not miss the point. Such observations about the limitations of vinaya ordination are not to say one cannot gain everything necessary within vinaya monastic life. And this is true for both women and men, gay and straight.
Without a doubt the traditional monastic life continues as a valuable option. This is the tradition that has fostered and carried our insights. To forget that would be to commit the sin of ingratitude. Arrogance is one of the greatest dangers on the spiritual way, and for our contemporary lay-oriented and feminist inspired Buddhism to dismiss the many gifts of the vinaya community would be a great loss not only for us but for future generations.
As suggested, alternatives to monastic ordination have revealed themselves. Through a peculiar set of historical circumstances a new form of ordination arose in Japan based upon sixteen vows, often called Bodhisattva ordination. While an institution that has its own problems, Bodhisattva ordination also opens many possibilities. Within this form of ordination, which had its origins in China but becomes fully formed in Japan, women and men, married people as well as celibates all may achieve formal ordained leadership within the Buddhist community.
Bodhisattva ordination is the product of a historical process, by fits and starts, of internal issues and, frankly, the interference of the state. And tellingly, those who have received such ordinations have a wide variety of understandings as to what it is, often dramatically contradictory. One of the most descriptive terms applied to Bodhisattva ordination has been that it is "neither monastic nor lay." This isn't completely true; this form of ordination includes people who are celibate, people who live in committed relationships, and those who are in between such options. It includes people living in monastic settings and people living lives almost identical to conventional householders.
In the west this form of ordination allows not only equal relationships among celibate monks and nuns; but also the possibility of a type of ordained Buddhist ministry to emerge. In fact the most common translation for osho, this rank of full Bodhisattva ordination in Japanese Zen Buddhism, is priest- not as intermediary between gods and humanity, but in its more technically accurate usage as "elder." Here we have a new kind of Buddhist guide, a minister among the community.
One need not embrace a liberal Buddhist perspective to accept this model of ordination. Nor is it the only possible model for an inclusive leadership. For instance the largest of the Zen schools in the west, the Kwan Um School of Zen, uses a vinaya monastic model tightly wound together with a strong emphasis on lay practice and teaching. Still, this model of Bodhisattva ordination is quintessentially an expression of the concerns and possibilities in the liberal Buddhist approach.
There should be no doubt that the contributions of women to the formation of a western and liberal Buddhism are of incalculable significance. Woman leaders and teachers, with their perspectives and insights, along with (though to a lesser degree) the perspectives of gay and lesbian thinkers are helping create an even richer vision of the Dharma than that which we have inherited from our traditional teachers.
Here we find the egalitarian promise, hinted at in the formation of the Buddhist sangha, beginning to flower. Shifting from traditionally masculine and (while I think the term somewhat problematic, it is still instructive) "patriarchal-identified approaches," and instead embracing the possibility of a variety of perspectives as articulated within much of feminist thought, we begin to see a more socially engaged Buddhism. Indeed, it is within the social aspects of liberal Buddhism that we in the west have particularly enriched the treasure that we've been given.
One of the first truly important books to rise out of the liberal Buddhist movement is Ken Jones's The New Social Face of Buddhism: A Call to Action. In traditional Buddhist schools the focus, as Stephen Batchelor implied in a somewhat different context, is essentially psychological. Classically, Buddhism is an examination of the human mind: how it works, what happens, and how to deal with it. Ken takes this foundational work of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, and all who followed, and pushes their insights. Out of that, he demonstrates the most significant aspect of a liberal Buddhism.
Early on in his book Ken offers up the image of Indra's Net, derived from the Avatamsaka Sutra, the core text of the Hua-yen school of Chinese Buddhism. Here we find the image of an infinite net that has an infinitely faceted jewel at each intersection of its infinite threads. With a single flash of light we have the whole of creation bursting forth. Within this image we find a reality where each jewel exists only as a reflection of the other jewels. And at the same time each of these individual jewels is the support of all the other jewels. None has a separate existence from all the others; each exists only within a realm of mutuality.
Ken takes this image and that of the Bodhisattva, the "enlightening-being" at the heart of the Mahayana way, and suggests there is a social ethic implicit within these images. He strives to make this insight explicit, something that characterizes much of liberal Buddhism. So we might begin to notice the assertion our egos, our sense of self is in fact a construction is also a suggestion that society itself is a construction. But rather than follow the analysis of Karl Marx or his opponents in considering this social construction, Ken draws upon the way of the Buddha and particularly the emphasis of Zen.
I believe these various threads of liberal Buddhism - rational and humanistic biases, inclusion of women and homosexual persons, emphasis on lay practice; and core understanding of the Dharma's social as psychological significance - have woven together to create something particularly powerful and useful.
Where all this will lead is an open question. The Dharma has only been sinking roots in the west for less than a hundred years. It will take generations to sort out what will be. But, if our choices are made with deliberation and care, as both liberal and more traditional forms of the Dharma root here, the possibilities for healing hurt, for opening hearts and eyes, for transforming individuals and our culture itself is as wide as the sky itself.
There is much reason for hope.