Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Neoliberal Buddhism

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.

GlobalizationWordleBanner2But 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 Honeyhttp://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.

19 comments on “Neoliberal Buddhism

  1. prajnacenter

    Good work, Shaun! We need more of this. And here is some, inspired by your comments! (Please detach this sentence, and sign the piece below the name “Dorje Shedong,” Vajra Anger [from Trungpa’s Sadhana of Mahamudra: “Vajra Anger, the flame of death, burns fiercely and consumes the fabric of dualistic thoughs”], one of my dharma names, if you decide to run this: it’s fresh out of the oven!   Jim______________________________________________ The Reproduction of Neoliberal Globalization by Dorje Shedong The irony is: on the “spiritual,” “psychological” level, we have “dualistic fixation.” According to Samir Amin, World System Theorist, Communist, on the “temporal,” “global political economic” level we have “center-periphery polarization,” a more sociological terminology for the same thing–which could provide a much needed way for us to get across to sociologists of all sorts the usefulness of the Buddhist problematic to their endeavors–if, of course, we were to actually wake up: in the Shambhala sense. “Dualistic fixation” and “center-periphery polarization” are two terms for precisely the same thing. As Trungpa Rinpoche pointed out in several places, once you “dualistically fixate,” produce “this” and “that,” “subject” and “object,” a fight to the death ensues: we see it all around us. The point I’m making is: the boundary between the “spiritual” and “temporal,” the “psychological” and “political economic”–that sense of separation between the apparent “two”–is a false one, illusory, a fabrication. It is a “well thought out pattern designed to hypnotize itself,” to borrow another insight from Trungpa Rinpoche. “Once the distinction is made between the interior and exterior, the problem of how they are related to each other may–and perhaps must–be developed in terms of the externalization of the internal and the internalization of the external. But, strictly speaking, there is no such distinction: the distinction itself is a delusion.” ( Toshihiko Izutsu, The Interior and Exterior in Zen Buddhism, Eranos Lectures 1, Spring Publications, Dallas, Texas, 1975, p. 36.) Another way to say that: so-called “egoism” and so-called “capitalism” are born at precisely the same instant, the instant of “dualistic fixation.” Moreover, we could say so-called “egoism” and so-called “capitalism” are two words for one and the same seamless “psycho-social” totality, an “order vs. chaos” sphere within the larger “orderly chaos” universe. In fact, if we were to take a peek and Trungpa Rinpoche’s “The Development of Ego” chapter of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, where he describes the birth of ego as a sand grain sticking its neck up in the middle of a desert, and coming to the conclusion of its separateness from all that out there, if we look closely, we can see he has on a little red t-shirt. On the front it’s got “Maximize Profit, Minimize Loss.” On the back its got “Accumulate, or Die!” So, that secret agenda involved in the self-hypnosis process–a secret buried deep in our minds, it is so precious to us–is kept there so we can cut through “spiritual materialism” with one hand, and do the opposite with the other hand, when it comes to “material materialism”! Cut through “private property, profit motive, and competition” on the “psychological” level,” but pamper and augment “private property, profit motive, and competition” on the political economic level! It is intentional. It is our intention to be hypocrites! It constitutes what we call “common sense,” “pragmatism.” So to go back to my initial point: do we think “center-periphery polarization” on the macro level of the global political economic system is a coincidence, or does it have something to do with our “habitual tendency” (Trungpa Rinpoche, again) to “dualistically fixate” on the micro “psychological” level? Can it be that micro level “dualistic fixation” ultimately, over millennia, has determined macro level “center-periphery polarization”? Can it be the Thatcherite view that there are only “individuals,” no such thing as “society,” be nothing but neoliberal cornpone? To sum up: as long as we continue to reproduce (thinking of Structural Marxist Louis Althusser’s famous “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” essay) the current conditions of production–namely “private property, profit motive, and competition” via our “habitual tendency” to “dualistically fixate”–all our talk about “compassion” and “protecting the earth” is useless, pretentious jabber–jabberwocky!  As long as we continue to cut through “duality” on the micro “psychological ” level, but maintain “duality” on the macro “social” level–one hand does know what the other hand is doing, by the way, but it is carefully veiled due to the adherence of our so-called “leaders” to neoliberal ideology–what we are left with is our actual gift to the world: a non-dualistic cherry perched atop a dualistically fixated turd cake!

  2. Ann Gleig

    Hi Shaun,
    This is an interesting post but one thing I’d be interested in hearing more about is how you see the relationship between neoliberal Buddhism and classical Buddhism, particularly Theravada, which also promotes individual enlightenment. What in classical Buddhism supports neoliberal Buddhism and what in classical Buddhism might disrupt it? What kind of political subjects have been produced and are being produced by Asian Buddhist countries? And what kind of interventions need to be made with classical Buddhism itself to produce more radical political subjectivites? Also, as an ethnographic researcher of the types of American Buddhist sanghas you are commenting on, I think there are structural efforts (especially with teacher training models) being made to re-think race and class dynamics-whilst these are very modest they do come from a recognition of the patterns you trace so acknowledging them will make your analysis stronger rather than detract from it.

    • roughgarden

      Ann: these are great questions! I will give them some serious thought and reply with another blog post. Thanks for pushing me on these issues so that I think them through more deeply. I plan to publish some of what I’ve written on this blog, and these kinds of questions and critiques are very helpful.

      • Ann Gleig

        Look forward to reading more of your work and future conversations, Shaun. I think the point Liam makes is an important one: re: karmic metaphysical explanations for conditions which we (I’m using we as Im guessing we share a similar politic) would be as due to unequal social conditions. I recently read a great piece on Buddhism and disability studies, which acknowledged that Buddhism is very limited in identifying how cultural contexts construct disability. I think engaged Buddhism has tended to shy away from acknowledging the aspects of the tradition that dovetail very nicely with neo-liberalism and tend to blame it all on a distorted reading of Buddhism through neo-liberal googles. Not that the latter doesn’t happen but I think we do need to get really clear on complicity coming from both sides–if we really want to revision something new. Anyway, sorry to ramble. Great blog–will include in my own work.

  3. Liam

    I think you’re close to me in terms of your social and political attitudes, but I think there’s a distortion here.

    I think you’re making a mistake in seeing a traditional or default Buddhism which is seriously engaged in progressive transformation of society, with which to distinguish your ‘neoliberalism Buddhism’. From Siddhārtha Gautama onwards, while compassion is important (or essential even) there is no requirement (in fact no point) in trying to change society. The emphasis is on individual liberation from suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Even with Mahayana, ‘saving all sentient beings’ has rarely meant social and political reform. And the idea that people are responsible for their own circumstances due to karma from actions in this and previous lives isn’t a ‘neoliberal’ innovation, it’s fundamental to Buddhist doctrine, irrespective of modern reinterpretation or revisionism.

    It’s the politically and socially engaged strain of Buddhism of the modern west, which is the new development. And I think its origins owe as much to western liberal and progressive movements as to Buddhism.

  4. Ann Gleig

    ps. I’m sure you already have but if not you should also check out the Speculative Non_Buddhists and Non-Buddhism.

    • roughgarden

      on board with Speculative Non-Buddhists, really challenging stuff.

  5. John Willemsens

    Reblogged this on Advayavada Buddhism.

  6. John Willemsens

    It’s a pity you have no share buttons (e.g. AddToAny). Cheers, John Willemsens.

    • roughgarden

      I wasn’t aware that there are no share buttons. I thought I had set that up. Thanks for letting me know.

  7. Oliver H.

    The turgid prose and self-congratulatory tone make it hard for me to read the entire thing. But from what I can gather, the gist of it is that Buddhists who don’t agree with my application of it in the political/social sphere are not real Buddhists. Or at least, they’re pretty darn inferior.

    • roughgarden

      If by “turgid prose” you mean all the emphases and “quotation” marks, I agree that it can make it more difficult to read. I’m Italian and I usually talk with my hands. The italics and quotation marks are the text equivalent of Italian sign language. I will probably clean that up for publication.

  8. Pingback: The New Brahmins: A Response to Critiques of “Neo-Liberal Buddhism” | Engage!

  9. greenpapayasangha

    As a member of a Plum Village/Thich Nhat Hanh sangha with a clear message and intent of social engagement I was quite surprised by your article. There are thousands of these socially engaged sanghas all over the world. And let us not forget the Dharma Bums of San Diego and the entire Refuge Recovery Movement.

    • roughgarden

      Thanks for your observations. I am trying to foster engaged Buddhism in my city, under the banner of The Ambedkar Society of Halifax (Nova Scotia). I’m totally down with Noah Levine and Refuge Recovery. There is a possibility of starting a group here in Halifax soon. The Dharma Bums of San Diego sound great, but everything is always happening on the West Coast; choices are few on the East Coast. I am practicing in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka. There is a large Sinhalese community here who just got a resident monk from Sri Lanka (by way of Toronto). I practice with them. But engaged Buddhism is not tied to any particular lineage. There are engaged Buddhists in every lineage, but very few. I’d rather have a Buddhist Peace Fellowship type of group that includes activists from all lineages.

  10. Pingback: The New Brahmins and the Buddhist Precariat – Engage!

  11. flaneurhenry

    Shaun, I’m just catching up with your older stuff, but I thing your critique of neo-liberal Buddhism is spot on. Buffeted by technological change and ruthless competition in cubicle and boardroom? Just chill with MBSR and the like and go with the flow unbothered by poverty, racism and ecological devastation.

  12. Pingback: Flipping the Script: Traditional is Good; Secular is Bad – Dharmaecology

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I do Tai Chi with Paul Read, the Teapot Monk, @ 21st Century Tai Chi Academy https://www.21stcenturytaichi.com/academy/89szm

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