He’s still Uncle Sam!

Can someone help me out? I recently read a blog post that struck me as telling a vital story about x-buddhism in the contemporary West. The thrust of the narrative is this: a critical mass of x-buddhist “provocateurs” are working independently toward “a radical re-engagement with Buddhism,” one that enables an escape from the old “romantic and idealized interpretations of the path.”

Here’s where I am asking for your help. I want to be convinced that the story is true! But I cannot for the life of me see the validity in it. So, I’m asking you to find some evidence for the narrative, and report back.

The two-part post that I am referring to was written by Matthew O’Connell at Elephant Journal (all links at the bottom), and is titled “Post-traditional Buddhism: The Quiet Revolution?” I think O’Connell’s post is certainly worth further consideration. What I find interesting is that O’Connell intelligently articulates, for the first time that I know of, the contours of an emerging defining narrative in the western x-buddhist scene, a kind of origin myth. As O’Connell says:

Post-Traditional Buddhism is a concerted effort to move away from the hegemony of what Dave Chapman describes as Consensus Buddhism. Because of this, many of its features are a direct refusal to kowtow to traditional Buddhist forms and relationships.

O’Connell’s post is discerning. My purpose here is not to critique his many assertions concerning the nature of an ostensible post-traditional Buddhism per se, except to say this: he confuses rhetoric for reality. While O’Connell gives an accurate description of the emerging “post-traditional” narrative, he mistakes the claims of his sources for an actual state of affairs. So, the real value of O’Connell’s post, for me, lies in its second-order reportage. It is the people he is reporting on who merit criticism. I say this for two reasons.

First, the story of a radical post-traditional Buddhism is indeed being driven by the “new[ish] generation” of x-buddhist figures, particularly in North America, and the story that these so-called provocateurs are telling about themselves is spurious, to put it mildly. Second, in crafting such a misleading narrative, the aspiring provocateurs are effectively diminishing the possibility of realizing the “promise and potentialities” embedded within their very narrative (see “The Power of Negative Thinking”).

So, who are these radical path-breaking x-buddhist provocateurs? O’Connell singles out the following figures:

  • Hokai Sobol;
  • Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association;
  • Stephen Schettini, “The Naked Monk;”
  • Buddhist Geeks (I think that’s Vince Horn, mainly);
  • Ken McLeod of Unfettered Mind;
  • Kenneth Folk;
  • David Chapman*;
  • Brad Warner;
  • The Dharma Overground;
  • Stephen Batchelor.

(He also mistakenly includes “the Non-Speculative Buddhism [sic] chaps.” But anyone who reads this blog will understand that that inclusion is very problematic.)

It is, of course, fair to claim—for the sake of discussion—that there are real differences between, say, traditional Tibetan or Japanese forms of Buddhism and current western versions of x-buddhism. But—and here’s my main point of contention—the old and the ostensibly new have more in common than the rhetoric of “post-traditional” admits. Not a single person mentioned by O’Connell, for instance, questions the very framework within which their supposedly radical innovations are being worked. That framework is, of course, “The Dharma,” or indeed simply “Buddhism” itself. By not calling into question the foundations of traditional x-buddhisms, the claim that our provocateurs are engaged in a battle “to pull apart traditional teachings and break down and defile Buddhism’s core taboos” rings hollow to my ears. (We might ask, along with Samuel Beckett, “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”) So, contrary to what O’Connell reports, because of their continued enchantment with and devotion to x-buddhism, these figures will most certainly not be able “to move away from the hegemony of what Dave Chapman describes as Consensus Buddhism.” Please, visit their sites and report back to me: are they not precisely beholden to that hegemony; are they not, in fact, renewing the warrant on x-buddhist consensus for the next generation?

If you are willing to read up on Buddhist history, you will discover that Hokai Sobol, Ted Meissner, Stephen Schettini, Vince Horn, Kenneth Folk, Ken McLeod and the others fit cleanly into the age-old trajectory of x-buddhist thought and practice. Ted Meissner, for instance, has replicated almost to perfection the Protestant Buddhism of T.W. and Caroline Rhys Davids (of the Pali Text Society). Kenneth Folk’s “Dharma” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhism of the old Theosophists. Ironically, O’Connell mentions David McMahan’s work The Making of Buddhist Modernism as identifying features that people like Meissner “radically” shift away from. Although Meissner’s site justifies O’Connell’s claim, just the opposite is true. McMahan includes as defining elements of the modernist Buddhist trajectory features that Meissner in fact celebrates and promotes, such as rationalism, scientific naturalism and Romantic expressivism, as well as a “focus on meditation, social engagement, internalization, and emphasis of equality and universality while de-emphasizing ritual, mythology, and hierarchy” (from Eyal Aviv’s review on H-Net). When we evaluate the current “post-traditionalists” in the light of x-buddhist history, we begin to see just how redundant their “innovations,” in fact, are. Debate about karma and rebirth, in other words, is as old as Buddhism itself.

In believing their own story that they represent “radical” or even innovative x-buddhist change, people like Kenneth Folk and Vincent Horn and their respective organizations miss a real opportunity. In my post “The Power of Negative Thinking,” I argue that in not recognizing the difference between rhetoric and reality, in missing the contradiction between these two, the very promise and potentialities inherent in these peoples’ x-buddhist ideology of awakening, etc. is missed. Imagine that some new political party were to come on the scene, promising to create a structure for realizing, say, equality, among citizens. The fact that terms like “post-traditional” and “radical” are used to differentiate the new party from the old admits to the actual necessity of those features for realizing the goal of equality. The party gets going, creates its platform, sends out its representatives to give talks, publishes tracts, etc. And, to a discerning observer, it turns out that the new party is simply mimicking the old. Worse: it mimics the old, but, for whatever reason obscures this fact. An opportunity is lost. Proven, though, is the party’s rhetorical assertion that genuine radicalism and post-traditionalism are required to break out of the established ways.

Really, I have to wonder whether Hokai Sobol et al are just willfully ignorant concerning their so-called “post-traditional radicality.” Each seems sincerely to believe that he is a “pathfinder, starting anew” (Sobol on himself). Maybe they are just not all that interested in digging in too deeply–into, for instance, x-buddhist history, for starters, or the presence of contradictions in their thinking. After all, each of the people O’Connell mentions could be seen as having a vested interest in belonging to the x-buddhist club. Whenever, throughout its history, x-buddhism has melded with commerce and the need for popularity (think: Facebook “Like” button; blog hits;  Twitter followers; book sales; podcast downloads; retreat attendance; etc.), the result has invariably been just what we’re seeing now: an intellectually vapid mélange packaged as just the opposite: as, that is, a serious, rigorous, honest investigation into matters of crucial human importance. For anyone who cares to see, our x-buddhist provocateurs most certainly are not provoking anything new. What, then, I wonder, are they doing?

One last thought: Since these figures are so serious about this business of becoming radically post-traditional, why don’t they engage us here at Speculative Non-Buddhism? Think about it: given the radicalness of the task at hand, isn’t even the most rigorous, brutal exchange of ideas worth it?

  • I am not sure that David Chapman belongs on this list. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to burst the seams.


Matthew O’Connell‘s original post (part two) at Elephant Journal. (Some of my comments there are reflected in my post here.)
Hokai Sobol (as of this posting, this site appears to be down).
Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association
Stephen Schettini
Vince Horn, of Buddhist Geeks
Ken McLeod, of Unfettered Mind;
Kenneth Folk Dharma
David Chapman
Brad Warner, of Hardcore Zen
The Dharma Overground
Stephen Batchelor

348 Comment on “X-buddhist Provocateurs?

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