A note on Liberal Buddhism
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.