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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Sociopathic Buddhism: Contemporary Western Buddhism as a Moral Failure

_80588226_624_monk-skyscraperI’m sick of practicing a restrictive Buddhism that rejects the world, that refuses to engage in culture and society as both participant and critic. I’m sick of a Buddhism that tries to escape the world by immersing itself in exotic cultures, obscure languages and obtuse philosophies, or by withdrawing into contemplative silence. I’m sick of a Buddhism that seals itself off within totalizing institutions that screen out real-world experiences, that perpetuates group think and cult behaviour. I’m sick of Buddhism as an escape from facing the complex realities of society. That kind of Buddhism is morally bankrupt.

I can no longer accept a Buddhism that has no imperative to advocate for human rights, that cannot make moral judgements about social systems that oppress huge segments of the world’s population, systems that perpetuate racism, classism and misogyny, that exploit labour and natural resources, that perpetuate war, poverty, police brutality and violence. I cannot accept a Buddhism that will not take a position on climate change and the wholesale destruction of living environments.

Buddhism is not a drug, but many people who practice Buddhism use it as a drug to anaesthetize themselves from the stress, anxiety and suffering of modern life. What’s worse, Buddhism is being taught as a drug, as a broad-based sedative to numb, calm and soothe the anxieties of the privileged classes. This kind of Buddhism shields people from feeling and reacting to both the passionate beauty and cold brutality of human life.

My experience is that contemporary western Buddhists have no sense of connection, compassion, ethical or social responsibility to other people. The only people they care about are themselves, and people exactly like themselves: rich, white, and upper class, It ignores the suffering of others as the karmic result of their own individual failure to “awaken” to Buddhist truths of impermanence and emptiness. I’ve been told by some practitioners that “compassion” in Buddhism means “teaching people the correct view of emptiness.”  If I had known that this was the case, I never would have gotten involved in this religion.

Now I realize that many people in western Buddhism are incapable of making any kind of compassionate or empathic connection with anyone. Songs like “Friends are Empty Forms”, espoused as a core teaching by Nalandabodhi, make it blatantly obvious that they have no idea what it means to be a friend or a community. This dogma treats people as no more than a form of shunyata, or emptiness, under an imperative of non-attachment.

I’m sorry, folks, but no, friends are not empty forms. Friendship is sacred; it is love, and love, of which there is too little in this world, is both precious and sacred. It is the emanation of buddhanature. The problem that contemporary westerners suffer from today is not clinging and grasping in relationships, but a profound disconnection from each other (even while overly networked), isolation, alienation and depersonalization. People are not able to connect with others in a meaningful way that generates trust, warmth and intimacy.  “Friends are empty forms” only exacerbates this form of sociopathology. A compassionate Buddhism treats people as people, with needs and feelings, not as a category of Buddhist dogma. I absolutely refuse to sing this song, and I will do everything in my power to dispute this hateful teaching.

These people are emotionally dangerous, because, contrary to what they preach, they are supremely self-centred; only the false self of “ego” has been replaced by yet another false self as “Buddhist.” As this false “Buddhist” self, they have no sense of empathy or ethical responsibility for their actions toward anyone; in short, they’re sociopathic.

Without ethics, without empathy, without a sense of personal responsibility for their actions, contemporary western Buddhism becomes sociopathic. This really hit me hard not just because of what happened in this particular sangha, but because I’ve discovered that it’s just a somewhat more extreme version of contemporary Buddhism as a whole. And that really hits hard, because I chose Buddhism as a religion that I thought was more ethical than most mainline Abrahamic religions (Christian, Jewish, Muslim).

I see that I was clearly mistaken, or misled by an interpretation of the dharma of compassion that many Buddhist communities don’t share. Their sense of social responsibility is derived solely from a concern for “looking like a Buddhist” toward others in their sangha, and somewhat more obliquely, within the community at large.

This is typical of the sociopath; they are masters at skillfully cultivating a public image as good, ethical, and even spiritual persons amongst their own religious group, while internally they have no sense of empathy or personal responsibility for anyone they relate to.

That’s why it’s very important how you define no self. It is the ‘self-that-feels-pain’ that is capable of feeling empathy for someone else’s pain. In terms of empathy or compassion, I do not feel your pain, I feel my pain, or I imagine the pain I would feel if I were in the position of a suffering person.

The self-without-pain is the typical ego-structure of the sociopath. He cannot feel the pain of another because his own ‘self’ does not feel that pain. He depersonalizes others as “non-entities” or “non-selves”, without feelings or worth that they should have any regard for. When he inflicts harm on another, it makes him feel good, powerful, like a superman—godlike. This is akin to the ‘deistic self’ that is the object of Vajrayana practice. Because he lacks a ‘self’ that has the capacity to feel the other’s pain, the sociopath assumes that the victim feels just as good about the abusive behaviour as he does.

Studies of sociopathy (diagnostic term: psychopathy), show that sociopaths are often highly accomplished people, supremely confident, exhibiting low stress, low anxiety, fearlessness, with a god-like sense of power and entitlement. In other words, sociopaths are the ideal Buddhists: they don’t suffer like normal people.

In order to be empathic and compassionate, you must have a well-formed self that is low in ego-centrism (not narcissistic), but capable of feeling pain, of feeling suffering, because it is only a self-that-feels-pain that is capable of feeling the pain of another.

But I don’t think its contemporary Buddhadharma alone that produces the Buddhist sociopath. It’s the Buddhist who is shielded by wealth, power and privilege who becomes the Buddhist sociopath. The wealthy Buddhist is morally and emotionally disconnected by his wealth and power from any sense of obligation to the rest of the world. He is further isolated and numbed from any sense of social responsibility by the practice of an individualistic and escapist Buddhism.

A common critique of contemporary western Buddhism is that no one teaches Buddhist ethics. I have found this to be true, thus far. With the exception of the engaged Buddhists, I have yet to hear any of the lamas or popular teachers of Buddhism in the West teach sila or Budddhist ethics. Yet in many Asian forms of Buddhism, the Buddhist path begins with sila or the study and practice of Budhdist ethics, then proceeds to samadhi, concentration-meditation, and panya, wisdom. At the very least, samadhi and panya are never taught without a thorouigh grounding in sila, Buddhist ethics.

Western Buddhism pushes meditation and individual enlightenment first, but fails to teach ethics as the responsibility that we share for others in society. We cannot even begin to develop a Buddhist view of social justice if we do not teach Buddhist ethics. Without ethics at the core of Buddhist teaching and practice, the discussion of Buddhist social justice becomes a self-congratulatory afterthought. Furthermore, without regular teachings on Buddhist ethics, a sangha cannot establish and sustain a healthy, sane and compassionate community.

I am absolutely in revolt against a Buddhism that assiduously avoids pain and suffering and that teaches others to do the same. I am in revolt against a Buddhism that uses philosophical abstractions like emptiness to avoid engagement with complex social issues and diverse human experiences. I am in revolt against a Buddhism that teaches a sociopathic detachment from other human beings as the supposed “virtue” of non-grasping.

I am in revolt against a “transcendent” and escapist Buddhism that refuses to grapple with the difficult issues of social systems, which are infinitely more complex than a conversation between two people. No, I’m sorry, but as someone who has practiced social science for thirty years, I’m here to tell you that “society” cannot be reduced toa conversation between two people.” Social systems exhibit exponential complexity. Moreover, they are governed by social norms that must be worked out amongst diverse groups with often conflicting interests, conditions and positions within society.

Rather, I espouse the navayana of Dr. B. R. Ambekdar, who reframed contemporary Buddhism in India as engaged Buddhism, as a social movement fundamentally concerned with ethical relationships amongst human beings and with all living beings—Buddhism as the foundation of an ethical civilization. This Buddhism has at its centre, not a detached equanimity, but full engagement and equality within a diverse society, with social justice as the key practice to effect the liberty equality and fraternity of human beings. Ambedkar’s navayana is a tripartite project of liberty, equality, fraternity, which Babsaheb likened to  the three-fold refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha.

Some lamas refer to Siddhartha Gotama as “rebel Buddha.” I propose instead a revolutionary Buddha, the navayana movement of of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. I call for passionate engagement, a revolutionary Buddhism which I have called the Dalit Buddhist Revolution.

—by the Editor, Shaun Bartone

17 comments on “Sociopathic Buddhism: Contemporary Western Buddhism as a Moral Failure

  1. Kate M
    2015/03/19

    Interesting viewpoint. I apologize for any contributions I may have inadvertently made to your sense of disappointment and betrayal.

    • roughgarden
      2015/03/19

      I appreciate your concern, Kate. Thank you. As deeply engaged as you are, you are certainly not one of those Buddhists who has disappointed me. In fact, you are one of my personal heroes and inspirations.

  2. peter b
    2015/03/23

    I completely agree and I thank you for addressing the issue!

  3. El Norto
    2015/04/05

    I agree wholeheartedly with you! Although in the Tibetan traditions ethics is a core part of the teachings. And detachment from each other is a wrong application of non-attachment. I feel after reading this that I’m on a right path, (even if I’m stumbling in the dark and the torch batteries died). Thanks!

  4. Mikkey
    2015/12/21

    Isnt all of that the opposite of being a buddhist/ So if you become a Tibetan buddhist you do not become a buddhist. You become someone who interprets the Koran as you feel fit for dictatorship. And/ore follow of a dictator. And you do not deal with your self – ” but only deal with everybody else”.
    You have no right view and right speech. You do not follow the Dharma. But you are sure you do. And you do not practice empathy even though that is your main standpoint.

    This is what insane is! That is what constituts cultic behavior!

    • roughgarden
      2015/12/22

      Mikkey; I’m not sure what you are trying to say here, but I respect your right to say it.

  5. omarkum
    2016/03/01

    yes a good article ..I briefy flirted with Tibetan Buddism but very quickly saw its utter immorality and its role as a tool to maintain bondage. The reincarnated 16 th century Abottess who was my teacher told me the same things Roughgarden feels is a western buddism but it is a product of the Potala. I also was sickened at the western bourgesois for the same reasons you mention. What ever you call Buddist ethics did not exist from my experience instead we had the Dalai Lama and his men out there sucking in a new power base. Evil Bastards the Tibetan Lamocracy. Thank you.

  6. Steve Marino
    2016/12/07

    Thank you for this article. I felt so alone, thinking exactly what you have so eloquently and passionately described. My practice is Zen, which I feel is only nominally “Buddhist”, and focuses on waking up and helping others. That is as fine an ethical program as can be found. But understanding that, and then going to your typical Zen center in America, are two different things! Whenever I would bring up the subject of social justice and getting together to work for that, no matter what lineage I was in, Tibetan, Zen, Shambhala (the ultimate latte liberal Buddhist lineage), I was met w/ silence. I have no idea what they were thinking because, honestly, every time I was just ignored. It was as if the heretic had spoken.

    So I am hoping you have some answers as to where I can connect w/ people that feel this is missing in our spiritual discipline. Otherwise, I just do what I can on my own. It works of course, but a support system would be better. My current sangha has no idea what I am talking about, and this I suspect is the norm. Again, thank you. Online forums are hopeless, and always seem to be run by the fundamentalist types who adhere strictly to doctrine. May as well be on a Christian fundamentalist forum. Mickey’s take on your article is a perfect example of this.

    • Shaun Bartone
      2016/12/07

      Hi Steve, thanks for your reflections on the article. I know exactly how you feel. I have been connecting with Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Recently they have started a program of organizing (roughly) bi-monthly video conference calls on various topics related to social justice and direct action. It’s free to join the call, although currently limited to 50 people. These conversations are very supportive and inspiring, and you can also learn a lot from other people’s experiences. Contact BPF through their website. http://www.bpf.org

      I would also encourage you to get involved in activist work with the secular social justice organizations. As much as I love working with Buddhists, I also find that secular social justice organizations are often more effective. They are coalitions that represent a plurality of interests and hold a variety of perspectives. It’s really important to stay open to the big wide world. My perspective is that the whole world is my sangha, and everyone has dharma-wisdom to share.

  7. Steve Marino
    2016/12/13

    Thanks Shaun. I will investigate the BDF today. I too have found good results working w/ non “spiritual” groups such as soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters and the like. While some are run by churchy types (it is always the Christians that seem to be involved in this by the way), some aren’t, and they’re a good place to meet people who just want to make the world a better place on a direct, fundamental level. This is especially rewarding for everyone concerned, especially to those who most need the help. Not being a wealthy person, sending money to worthwhile organizations is not practical for me, but direct action, w/ or w/o a group, is just that….direct and effective.

  8. Min
    2016/12/14

    Both my parents were/are total sociopaths. I am effected so much by the abuse that I became gravely physically ill, and was gromed to be in total lack of selfconfidence and independence.
    I would think it is called stockholmsyndrom and ore codependence – not that it really covers it..
    At the same time my “parents” would go around telling everybody that my physical illness was just imaginary and I was totally insane to the extend that I should be held down ore seen as somebody who did not even count as human. Of course they did not use these words. Sociopaths are sly.

    My “parents” would take me around for all kinds of crazy-treatment and retainment, further expoitation slander and severe abuse, for their pleasure. A smearcampaign was lauched from the day I was born. Because my so called parents were intellectuals everybody believed, ore at least went along, with it – even though they could see my physical and emotional state.

    One of these people who has gone along with it, and taken it the furtherst is one of Dailai Lamas relatives in Denmark. He and is wife is good friends with my parents.
    To complicate it all, in my late years – before I ran away from Denmark, and am currently sick and homeless in another country, still trying to stay alive out of anger – this relative would also go along asking for emotional help to me in Tibetan Buddhist community. For as we all know, they have at least some more efficient psychoterapheutic tools than the rest of civilization. But at the same time this relative would ask for help, he would tell them to help me for “my insanity” “my difficulties”! 

    And that is what I got out of it, I was send around in different Tibetan Buddhist centers and treated as a mad person, where monks were even degrading themselves to bullying – pointing fingers at me, and showcasing this mad person around.

    I am not insane. I have been abused to the point of death, constantly. By abused I mean emotionally but also physically. This last part is also denied, like I can´t remember that my dad, the last time I was in his company tried to wring my neck.  
    And I have been beaten up by a whole group of “nice” people in Jutland…. Jutland is the main part of Denmark.

    Maybe people do not believe that such abuse can occur, and that you can always get away from a sociopathic upbringing. But that is not true, not in small Denmark.
    And not with the kind of abuse I have been subjected to since the age of 0, when it has become your identity.

    I have written this to HH two times, I have seen him speak in Bellacenter and Cirkusbygningen from front row seats in Denmark, two times. But nothing is done.

    I am sorry I cannot write ore spell. But I cannot do anything, only try to tell the truth over and over again.

    • Shaun Bartone
      2016/12/15

      I’m deeply sorry for the abuse you suffered. I’m afraid there is little I can do to relieve your suffering, except to hear you and affirm the injustice you suffered by posting your story here. Religions are ideologies that can cause blindness to truth and reality. It can be used to justify the actions of abusive people. May you find peace and love within yourself.

  9. James
    2019/01/31

    I once met a sociopath and Buddhist nun called Sayalay Anuttara, whose values were very much aligned with Buddhism. The selfishness and escape from life suited her disposition, and as none of the rules mentioned manipulating or harming others, she was able to follow her core instincts.

    I do now wonder whether Buddhism and psychopathy are subtly linked, in their single-minded pursuit of the self, and detachment from other people. Interesting article!

  10. Joan Sutton
    2019/11/02

    I wrote the following comment on Reddit in a Buddhist thread. Almost nobody responded to it, except one person who said it was very un-Buddhist. But since this article reminds me of the things I said there, I’m reposting it now:

    Without the Self, you have no key for right action. The Golden Rule shows that the Self is used as a measurement for how to treat others – treat others as you would want to be treated. If you deny and suppress the individual Self you will have no idea how you yourself want to be treated or how to treat others. I’ve seen how a sort of coldness and distancing becomes the result of such practice, opening the door to cruelty. I think it is misguided. Kindness begins with the Self; without that kindness towards one’s own identity, there is no possibility of real kindness, empathy, or respect for others. And in fact, kindness becomes a boring meaningless word, not a goal. You might as well sequester yourself in a cave and spend the rest of your life in isolation. Because just when you thought you were eliminating the Ego, you were actually feeding it in the worst way.

  11. Claire70
    2019/11/05

    Sorry, but this is massively generalising. There are many Western Buddhists who would completely agree with you, and who *do* very much practice ethics and compassion. Please don’t tar us all with the same brush!

    • Shaun Bartone
      2019/11/08

      I agree that its massively generalizing. I meant it to apply mainly to the leaders and teachers who shape the dharma that we practice. Most of us are rather naive recipients of what we believe to be ‘the tradition’, when in fact its a particular interpretation that is not necessarily traditional at all. Lots of people feel the way I do about how Buddhism is being taught and promoted in the West, and we’re walking away because of it. Some of us, like me, are fashioning our own approach to dharma, which you may or may not appreciate, and that’s fine.

  12. Steve Norton
    2019/11/06

    in a dharmic way… imagine there are converts to every religion who find the same sentiment… maybe if we try more serious conversion we might find one to gel with peace and love ^_^

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