Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I have identified two forms of “problematic” Buddhist organizations and cultures in North America (and not all are problematic). One is the Buddhist cult, which is surprisingly common. It’s not a ‘top-down’ cult that is imposed from above on naive practitioners (although in a few cases, it has been). Rather Buddhist cults are ‘self-imposed’ by practitioners themselves who seek a feeling of comfort and security in a guru and sangha, who want the dharma and the practice to answer all their questions for them and allay all their fears; who prefer only to relate to those within their sangha, only take teachings from their own gurus and no one else, and refuse dialogue with the “outside world.” And so on; the Buddhist cult is actually fairly easy to recognize by the practitioner who is not looking for that kind of experience.
But the second major form of “problematic” Buddhist organization and culture that I have identified is the neoliberal form, which is far more subtle, much harder to recognize. It appears at fist to be “the cool” sangha, modern, 21st Century, technically savvy, geeky, even culturally hip. This is not the “neoliberalism” of state policies and global corporate capitalism, but the cultural neoliberalism that is endemic to North America. It’s typified by what Larisa Honey calls “the neoliberal self”:
“The neoliberal self is characterized by depoliticization, the rejection of institutions of social welfare, and the stigmatization of individual misfortune. (…) Features that mark self-help discourses as neoliberal include the centrality of the self in the attainment of wellbeing, practices of self-realization and self-control, and the sale of practices and ideas of the self in the marketplace. As theorized through Michel Foucault’s framework of governmentality, this new neoliberal self is constituted in the West alongside new state rationalities that have emerged with the shift away from the Keynesian welfare state. Strategically framed in terms of ‘freedom, autonomy and choice,’ neoliberal modes of governing utilize ‘technologies of the self’ such as self-help practices to produce new subjects who view themselves as responsible for their own social welfare and wellbeing and, consequently, are induced not only to govern themselves ‘according to market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness’ but to feel ’empowered’ in the process.” (Larisa Honey, http://www.soclabo.org/index.php/laboratorium/article/view/330/1028)
Neoliberal sanghas emphasize personal enlightenment over collective liberation. The path to enlightenment itself becomes a form of individual achievement. The neoliberal practitioner strives to join the sangha with the best reputation, to become one of the top-ranking members of the sangha, to attach themselves to a guru with the greatest public acclaim. The neoliberal practitioner views enlightenment as something he must achieve, (along with a good education, well-paid profession, a solid marriage, membership in the country club) rather than acknowledging it as something that no one achieves, but which is inherently existing in the buddhanature of all phenomena, as integral to all sentient beings. His or her achievement as a practitioner, e.g. the number of hours spent in daily meditation, the number of weeks spent in silent retreats, the level of advanced coursework in Buddhist studies, one’s reputation in the sangha as an “advanced practitioner”, all of these become a source of personal achievement confirming to the practitioner that he is indeed enlightened.
Moreover, the neoliberal practitioner views his wealth and upper class status as a kind of predestination, a kind of manifest destiny, that he is “nobly born” (read “high caste”), because he is destined for full enlightenment. Thus his wealth becomes a sign of his potential for high spiritual attainment. His or her wealth is not the result of greed or systemic privilege, but a sign of “fortunate birth” that affords one the opportunity to devote oneself to the dharma. They are fortunate, not by virtue of being born white, male, and benefitting from and unfair system of social privilege, but by virtue of their good karma, i.e. spiritual achievement in past lives, destined to become one of the global elite who have access to the best gurus, the most exclusive retreat venues, the most advanced empowerments and highest levels of practice.
Conversely, neoliberal Buddhism views those who are born destitute, who struggle just to get through a day’s work to eat enough, who lack education and access to dharma teachings, as “the unfortunate”. They were born into such mean estate (read “low caste”) that they do not have the requisite leisure to hear dharma teachings or cultivate liberating practice. The neoliberal view of these “unfortunates” is that they suffer, not from systemic oppression, but from personal “craving, hatred and delusion”. Even the unfortunates, if they are able to reform their individual mental conditions, might find liberation in their present condition. Perhaps in the future they will be born into better material circumstances (read “higher caste”) that will afford them the freedom to learn and practice the dharma.
What typifies the neoliberal sangha is not so much what they say or do, but what they don’t say or do. The neoliberal sangha never questions racist or patriarchal structures of authority, including those that operate within the sangha itself. They never even notice the huge class divide, the classist culture that “self-selects” members who are professionally accomplished, rich, with ample vacation time and money to travel to retreats with gurus in exotic locales, to pay for increasingly more costly teachings and retreats to obtain ever higher levels of “attainment.” Culturally, if you’re not a white, well-educated, well-paid professional, and if you don’t exhibit the “right kind” of upper-class patterns of taste and consumption, you will probably not feel welcome at most neoliberal Buddhist sanghas.
It’s hard to even identify these problems and raise these issues in neoliberal sanghas because, if it’s not a problem for the governing councils that run these organizations (and it never is), then it’s not a problem. It doesn’t matter that it is a problem for many other people who might try to become members of these sanghas. If the guru and the governing councils don’t experience it as a problem, then “the problem” simply doesn’t exist.
The neoliberal sangha focuses on the individual practitioner, and regards social issues of inequality and oppressive power structures as “irrelevant” to the dharma and practice of Buddhism. Most world religions have their social critics, working from both within and outside religion. Questions of patriarchy, systemic racism, poverty, the oppression of gender and sexual minorities, class structure, and imperialism are posed, grappled with and challenged. But in the neoliberal form of Buddhism, one dare not even ask such questions. The Buddha, represented by the guru and the sangha council; and the dharma, i.e. the original and interpreted teachings of the Buddha, are perfect and therefore above and beyond such “dualistic” thinking. Social critique only brings ‘suffering’ to the practitioner and is therefore to be avoided.
Though I am speaking of the neoliberal culture of the sangha, culturally it shares some of the hallmarks of the neoliberal economic structure that it is derived from. The first and most obvious marker is the global cultural form of the neoliberal sangha. This is a jet-set culture where gurus fly in from distant locales, living and working on multiple continents. The career as guru is itself partly the product of neoliberal state and global economic forces that force religious ethnic groups from their homelands (i.e. Tibet) and disperse them to developing and developed nations. They bring their diasporic culture with them and pass on the teachings, with but often without the “cultural trappings” of the local cultures that the teachings were originally embedded in, historically. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the neoliberal sangha is that the teachings are said to be “universal”, and separate from the cultures they evolved in. That is, these teachings are globalized, culturally dislocated and redeployed in the global market as the naive product of neoliberal colonialism.
Likewise, jet-setting gurus are followed by the jet-setting upper class, the global elite who, perhaps at some inconvenient cost to themselves but otherwise without qualms, travel to distant locales to form highly elitist sanghas that, while they may be ethnically diverse, including both Asian and North American members, are all of one class, i.e. the global elite who can afford to fly around the world, stay in hotels and expensive retreat centres for a weeks at a time, exhibiting the tourist consumption patterns of the neoliberal leisure class.
The neoliberal form of Buddhist sangha is typified by a near total lack of interest in offering aid to the poor and disempowered classes. Their claim is that “to help oneself is to help all beings”, thereby relieving themselves of any sense of responsibility to generously serve those in need, those who are truly suffering socially, economically, politically. Indeed, the neoliberal sangha often situates itself in urban locales that are sealed off from places where poor people live, in racially privileged white neighbourhoods, in upper-class enclaves where people who struggle never appear. Here again, if the sangha does not encounter such people, in effect they don’t exist and neither do their “issues.” The neoliberal “enlightenment”, so to speak, is nothing more than the privilege of being white enough and rich enough to never have to worry about racism, prison, homelessness, or where the next meal is coming from.
Moreover, the neoliberal sangha shows absolutely no interest or concern for issues of social justice, poverty, racism, gender disparity, either in their own first world or the third world. Those that profess any interest have devised a neoliberal version of engaged Buddhism that focuses on relations between “enlightened individuals”. They equate an “enlightened society” with “a conversation between two people”, deliberately ignoring group dynamics, social institutions and systemic forces that shape our individual and collective lives. Even more remote is the possibility that the individual practitioner or the sangha will recognize their own culpability as a contributing cause of these problems, or their lack of effort in working towards an effective solution. This is a soulless, gutless Buddhism that lacks the courage to even face the issues, much less do anything about them.
Some members of neoliberal sanghas do express an interest in “helping the poor”, but often, their assistance takes the form of global relief work, or “compassion tourism”. They travel to exotic developing nations, usually in the east and having significant Buddhist communities—India, Nepal, Bhutan—and graciously “gift” their western cultural assistance to poverty-stricken, dislocated ethnic minorities who may not actually benefit from this form of compassionate colonialism.
The neoliberal sangha is, I venture, the dominant form of sangha in North America today. When one enters such a sangha, one may not even be aware at first that anything is amiss. The practitioner has the sense that there’s something “different” or “kind of wrong”, but you “can’t quite put your finger on it.” Initially, practitioners are there to relieve their own suffering, to their lives together and improve their mental well-being, and ultimately to work out their own enlightenment. But then the lack of any discussion about issues of gender, racism, patriarchy, class privilege, concern for world affairs, and so forth, keep bubbling up to the surface of one’s consciousness. The practitioner, who is even vaguely aware, begins to experience a strange and deafening silence in these sanghas in which such questions are never raised, such issues are never talked about. The result is a cognitive dissonance of a very subtle kind, which then becomes louder and more persistent as the experience continues. The modern practitioner, who is used to hearing discussions of race, class and gender in the popular media all the time, begins to wonder why such issues are never raised within the sangha. The practitioner begins to experience the sangha as an artificial bubble that protects itself and it’s members from any intrusion by these issues.
For many practitioners, that is as far as it goes. They notice a cultural bubble, and they may choose to say or not say or do anything about it. Indeed, there is almost no point in trying to change the culture of the neoliberal sangha, because if these are not “problems” for the gurus and governing councils of these sanghas, then they simply don’t exist as problems.Therefore, trying to address these issues becomes a waste of effort that results in nothing but the passive-aggressive avoidance of conflict, more deafening silence, and worse, ostracism of the “confused” practitioner who dared to even raise the issue.
At this point, the practitioner can choose to accept the neoliberal sangha as it is, perhaps with a degree of comfort in said “acceptance”; or leave and try to find a sangha that is willing to engage these issues as part of its teaching and practice. But since the neoliberal sangha appears to be the dominant form of Buddhist sangha in the developed world, the practitioner will most likely not be able to find a sangha that possesses the “skillful means” to address issues of social justice. In short, outside of a few far-flung groups, such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Oakland, California, there aren’t any sanghas in North America that have this capacity. The choice then becomes, stay with the neoliberal sangha, or become a post-Buddhism Buddhist.