The New Brahmins: A Response to Critiques of “Neo-Liberal Buddhism”

Dr. Ann Gleig, Professor of Religious Studies in the Philosophy Department at Central Florida University, read my article, “Neo-Liberal Buddhism” and posed some very challenging questions. This blog post is a somewhat long and rambling reply that will be reorganized and eventually become a chapter in an upcoming book. Dr. Gleig’s questions and comments are highlighted in bold.

[Note: This is still a work in progress, so expect numerous edits and updates. As more readers comment and the debate goes on, I will respond with edits and possibly new blog posts.]

Dr. Gleig:

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 I have been looking at for a couple of years now is the class structure of Western Buddhism. The emphasis of classical Buddhism on individual enlightenment nicely dovetails with Larisa Honey’s description of the neo-liberal self. [Lisa Honey Neoliberal Individual] That was the starting point of my article.

But the background social structure of classical Buddhism must be examined in order to understand how in the past, individual liberation equated to broad social change. The early Buddhists established a monastic order that was countervalent to the Vedic caste system. Few people were born Brahmins, and the vast majority were born low caste or untouchables. Since nearly every aspect of one’s life was determined by caste, to challenge the caste system globally on that level was tantamount to a social revolution. Furthermore, what Buddha prescribed was a way to attain brahma (nibbana, an end to rebirth) without the Brahmins, defying the entire Vedic religious system of rituals and sacrifices that only Brahmins could perform (and profit from).

Caste taboo was most prominent around marriage and food. The food taboos are most interesting. I read Sangharakshita’s memoirs of his life as a Theravadin monk in mid-century India. He got his food daily with a begging bowl, using it according to the ancient rules of the Vinaya. The rules specified that monks could only accept cooked food. Why is that significant? Because one can only accept cooked from a person of one’s own caste. To take cooked food from someone other than your caste was to defile either yourself or the other person. (Uncooked food could be given to anyone.) Furthermore, the monks were not to make any distinction as to which houses they would go to—another form of deliberate resistance to the caste system. Lay persons who became Buddhists were freed from the Vedic caste system. Thus they were able to marry people of different castes, another way they defied the caste system.

So the classical Buddhists established a social order in defiance of the Vedic caste system. This potentially freed people in all aspects of their lives, material and social as well as spiritual: work, marriage, education, religious practices, food and subsistence, dwelling and travelling, social status, and ultimately, political power. It freed the low caste and untouchables from a lifetime of social degradation and slavery that was otherwise inescapable. To end the caste system was a revolutionary act that impacted every aspect of the social system.

In the 21st century global western world, our lives are not overly determined by a single, all-encompassing caste system. We are divided into classes, and those classes determine what kind of privileges we have, what kind of wealth, social status and opportunity we have. But class does not condemn most people to a lifetime of abject poverty and servitude in the western developed world. (It does so in the developing world).

We no longer assume that people are born into a certain caste or class which determines everything about their lives until death. Westerners have a “common sense sociology” which that explains that people’s life chances are at least partly affected by social structures that shape their relative opportunity or disadvantage. Aside from class, we understand that race and gender are especially strong determinants of one’s chances in life. We understand that gender and race are socially defined, and that privileges and disadvantages attached to those attributes are structurally, that is to say, socially determined. It is no longer the case that shifting one’s individual religion, from say Christianity to Buddhism, effects one’s liberation from the social system. Becoming a Buddhist has few social repercussions; it is a strictly personal choice.

Moreover, the caste world view that the Buddha contested was one of extreme eternalism. Every single social structure was determined by the caste system. It was absolutely fixed, unchangeable and eternal. The individual had no means of effecting liberation from the caste system except to live out one’s caste regulations as perfectly as possible, make the required Brahmanic rituals for purification, and hope that one would be reborn in a higher caste in future lives. Moreover, one’s caste fate was determined over countless lifetimes in the past, and extended into countless lifetimes in the future. The atta, the soul or “true self” was fixed and eternal, synonymous with absolute and unchanging Divinity. Between eternalism and nihilism, the greater “wrong view” in the ancient Indian world was eternalism. 

To a person whose entire world and life condition was immovably fixed by eternal laws of caste, teaching them the “emptiness” of the universe and it’s supposed laws was a profound liberation. Under those conditions, it becomes understandable that one coiuld equate the dharma of “emptiness” with “compassion.”

Thus, for the Buddha to say that the universal dynamic is impermanence was a radical, revolutionary world view. It implied not only that everything changes, but that everything could be changed by one’s virtuous and compassionate actions. Today we know that everything changes and that everything can be changed; that’s a given. The idea of impermanence does not have the kind of revolutionary cadence that it did in Buddha’s ancient India.

By contrast, we live in a “throw-away” society typified by constant change at bewildering speeds. Everything must be updated; one must get the latest version and ditch what was “so yesterday.” There is nothing worth hanging onto, everything is disposable, including, sadly, people, relationships and the environment we depend on.

The dominant “wrong view” that pervades western societies is nihilism. It’s a nihilism with the sense that, not that nothing exists, but that nothing exists that really matters. It’s a nihilism of apathy and self-absorption: “Why should I care? What can I do about it anyway? I’d rather take care of myself—or kill myself. You got a problem with it? it’s your problem, you deal with it.” This is an apathy provoked by a different kind of social rigidity—social systems that are dynamic, yes, but vast, complex, indifferent, and impervious to reform unless there is a mass social movement, or a catastrophic system failure.

The contemporary zeitgeist of individualism, alienation, apathy and nihilism dovetails perfectly with Lisa Honey’s description of the neoliberal self. The neoliberal self searches for a spirituality that numbs the constant ache of disconnection and alienation, calms the vertigo caused by constant change and upheaval, gently energizes the depressive apathy. The neoliberal self also correlates with a certain interpretation of classical Buddhism that emphasizes the liberation of the individual. The zeitgeist of nihilism is amplified by an emphasis on shunyata or emptiness. Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes the total emptiness of self and world, which reinforces the contemporary sense of alienation and nihilism. There is nothing to care about, because there is nothing there. Thus, I see an adventitious nexus between the classical interpretation of Buddhism, 21st century nihilistic alienation, and Lisa Honey’s the neoliberal self.

There is little sense that the liberation of the individual equates to a broad social change, because we understand that the individual is to some degree inconsequential to the social system. The system persists regardless of dramatic changes for the individual. This means that we must focus on collective action to bring about social justice and a more compassionate society.

And what in classical Buddhism might disrupt it? And what kind of interventions need to be made with classical Buddhism itself to produce more radical political subjectivities?

The emphasis of ancient Mahayana Buddhism on emptiness and non-self plugs too neatly into the modern mood of apathy and alienation and tends to reinforce it, resulting in the error of nihilism. Finding a “middle way” in today’s global capitalist culture is necessarily going to be different than finding a “middle way” in ancient Asian cultures. A more appropriate middle path has already been made clear by many authors. In his book, The Heart is Noble, the 17th Karmapa writes on a range of social justice issues and how they relate to classical Buddhism. He states boldly in the chapter on the environment that “Compassion is King”:

In Buddhism, we speak of wisdom and compassion as necessarily paired. The healthy relationship between them is for compassion to be like a king, with wisdom or intelligence serving as its minister. The king commands, and the minister has to come up with a way to execute those commands. Similarly, our compassion should set the course of our actions, while our wisdom serves to determine how best to plot that course forward. In our case, too often the opposite is true. Intelligence is deployed indiscriminately, running all over the place, while compassion drags along far behind.

This  is backward. We need to let the heart lead. Compassion is indispensable; it is the single most important factor we need if we are going to have any real success in protecting the environment, in creating a just society, or simply in living wholesome, happy lives. (Ogyen Trinley Dorje, The Heart is Noble, p. 96-97)

Whereas in the past wisdom-emptiness was emphasized to break the practitioner’s attachment to solidity, rigidity and eternalism, today compassion must be emphasized to push practitioners out of their isolation, alienation and apathy, and move them toward collective action for social justice.

A number of authors have offered a definition of  anatta as “self as process”, rather then self as a fixed, eternal and divine essence. Similar is the interpretation of shunyata as process, and pratityasamutpada as interdependence. Process and interdependence are modernist interpretations of these classical ideas that are adapted to a world which is ever on the brink of social and environmental crisis. They neatly undergird the sense of connectedness that we already experience in our globally networked society, the same connectedness that we also need to cope with the constant crisis.

My own interpretation of anatta as “non-self nature” [link] emphasizes the self as a process of social construction, one which occurs over a lifetime and is ever-changing. Non-self nature configures the self as held in being through connection with other beings and all other conditions which continuously give rise to it, self as interdependence.

Early foundational Buddhism, what we now call Theravdin, teaches vipassana, the practice of noticing that “self” cannot be found in any part of our bodies or consciousness. It teaches the practice of noticing that a chariot is made up of parts that are not a chariot, in “the seven-fold reasoning of the chariot”. It teaches the practice of noticing that everything around us is made up of partless particles, that everything breaks down into parts that have no self-generating or permanent essence. In contemporary terms, we call this deconstruction, which is a prominent feature of post-modernism. Because of this teaching, one commentator called the Buddha “the premodern postmodernist.”

In classical Buddhism, the practice of vipassana or deconstructive analysis is usually limited to one’s body and identity, and to natural and man-made objects in our daily life. This is one classical practice that could be taken further into a realm where it has not been traditionally practiced in Buddhism, as a social deconstruction, the deconstruction of human civilizations. I have already suggested this in my article “Seeing Through” [link]. Western social science has deployed deconstructive analysis as a prominent analytic practice almost since it began in the late Victorian period, reaching it’s zenith in what is now called the post-modern period, around the millennium. Employing vipassana as a social science, we can deconstruct social structures that are oppressive and impervious to reform. Deconstruction helps us to “see through” their empty nature, that they are comprised of nothing but a series of agreements as to their power and reach. Social structures are nothing but a product of group mind, and we can collectively deconstruct and transform those features of society that need to be changed.

While we no longer live in an all-encompassing caste system that determines every aspect of our lives, we continue to live in an all-encompassing economic system that determines our relative advantage: class-stratified capitalism. The neoliberal illusion of “choice” is determined by a limited array of choices that must comport with the profit motive. The neoliberal illusion of “equality” is shattered, as Habermas, said, by an economic system designed to generate inequality. Modern Buddhism is organized around that class-stratified system. It is dominated by a class of wealthy and powerful lay religious professionals I call the New Brahmins. In order for there to be New Brahmins, there must be lower castes that mirror their relative position in reverse: the new Untouchables. This suggests a reprise of the ancient Vedic caste system in the form of economic class. The caste system that was once rejected by the ancient Buddhists of India is now embraced as class by contemporary global Buddhists.

The New Brahmins steer Buddhist organizations. They teach, dispense empowerments, and certify the practitioner’s level of attainment in the system. One cannot advance along the prescribed path, nor advance within the hierarchy of the sangha, without their permission and approval. They create, as it were, a religious scarcity, which sets a price on each stage of spiritual development. The practitioner cannot proceed along this path unless s/he is willing to pay whatever it costs to complete the next level of attainment. Like the Brahmins of old, one cannot hope to attain nirvana except through the dispensation of the New Brahmins.

The contemporary Western approach to becoming enlightened often confers on the subject the mistaken notion that achievement of such state is “special” and out of the ordinary. One only becomes enlightened as a result of a rare set of conditions that are exclusive to the individual who is able to access and capitalize on those rare conditions. Shrine rooms and dharma centres are thought to contain that rare set of conditions conducive to enlightenment. Access to higher levels of practice confer special “empowerments” on the individual that denote him as a “truly exceptional” being who has achieved a rare state of consciousness beyond ordinary folks. Such a state of consciousness becomes available only to those permitted into that exclusive realm of empowerments. That condition of exclusivity requires that something else must be excluded. What is excluded is the ordinary, the person of low social and thus low spiritual attainment, the low-caste, i.e. the new Untouchable.

The new Untouchables are those socially disadvantaged persons who, due to their lack of material resources, cannot gain access to the full scope of practice, except at the lowest levels of attainment. They are confined to a marginalized token membership in which they are materially barred from completing the prescribed path. They are materially excluded from more advanced practices, and thus from leadership positions as teachers and sangha directors. The new Untouchables are not those born into a caste, but who occupy a degraded social category, such as a racialized “visible minority”. They present as devalued genders, such as “female” or “femme”, as homosexuals and transgender persons. They are without the career achievement that affords the financial means to buy their way into the realm of exclusive empowerments. People with disabilities, I think in particular, face an almost total exclusion. They are not even visible in white convert sanghas; persons with mobility disabilities, sensory disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and chronic illness, are not even physically present. Moreover, from their point of view, the new Untouchables don’t find much at these dharma centres that’s really relevant to their lives, other than a way to relieve stress and go on a nice “staycation.” There is too much emphasis on individual mental practice through meditation techniques, and not enough that speaks to their oppressive social conditions.

The questions I ask myself are these: What has caused the manifestation of the new caste system in Western Buddhism? Why are there New Brahmins and new Untouchables?

More precisely: How did contemporary Buddhism become organized around class? My theory is that it came about through the dominance of the laity in Western sanghas. In Tibetan and South Asian forms, those Buddhisms were organized around the monks. The laity had no role except to support the monks and receive their blessings. It’s a feudal system, and under a feudal system, the lords (bhikkhus, lamas) have all the power; everything revolves around them. The peasants or proletariat are subsumed under the feudal hierarchy. In the West, the bourgeoisie became an autonomous class as they developed in the cities, in the market sector, outside the hierarchy of the feudal land system of Church and King. Once the middle class developed, it split into numerous sub-classes, much like the Indian caste system: gentlemen farmers, craftsmen, skilled labourers, merchants, professionals and bureaucrats of all kinds. Today in the West, the laity has tremendous power within Buddhism because contemporary Buddhism is organized around the laity. It’s steered at the top by monks and senior teachers who hold the authority of transmission. Under the lamas, sanghas are run by and for the laity, under the direction of a class of professional teachers who acquired their high rank through long association with founding gurus, supported by the wealth, education and status of their high-income professional careers. So now you have a Western Buddhist bourgeoisie which is splitting into several sub-classes.

What kind of political subjects have been produced and are being produced by Asian Buddhist countries? 

This is a topic that I have very little knowledge of, a question that I am not qualified to answer.

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.

There are Buddhist authors I have read who are tackling the issue of racism and gender oppression in contemporary Buddhism, but I have yet to attend a teaching on these topics. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the international headquarters of Shambhala, and as well the site of several convert Tibetan groups, two Zen groups, and one Sinhalese Theravdin group. I have yet to see any leader from any of these communities give a teaching on racism and gender oppression in any of these communities. I myself tried to get a group started that would address these issues, but no one was interested. Such a discussion would poke a hole in the soothing bubble that encases people seeking to escape social distress in Buddhist communities. If it’s not a problem for them, it’s not a problem. And furthermore, even if it is a problem, they don’t want to hear about it. That’s all in the relative realm of samsara and they want to exist only in the perfect absolute realm of nirvana, where there is nothing that divides us by race, gender, class or any other social disadvantage.


8 thoughts on “The New Brahmins: A Response to Critiques of “Neo-Liberal Buddhism”

  1. Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to my many questions that I fired out after reading your earlier post. You’ve sparked a lively debate over on a friend’s FB page –I asked people to bring the conversation over here to give you some more meat to chew on. Just a few reflections on my own:

    I think that you are asking questions that are really timely right now and that are being expressed in a multiplicity of ways from the more academic-theoretical (via the neo-liberal framework) to the more on the ground (why are our sanghas so m/c, white ect)

    I liked how you brought up how the cultural context shapes the reception of ideals like individual enlightenment–its correlation with neoliberalism now for example. what i’m not so sure about is your articulation of its relationship between individual liberation and social change at the time of the Buddha. that the caste system was challenged by Buddhism was revolutionary but in terms of how that actually played out on the ground –i’m not sure it was as radical. an analogy here would be the ways in which ascetic misogyny remained alive and kicking in buddhist communities despite the buddha allowing nuns to join the sangha (and recent work by Amy Langenberg on nuns has showed that Vedic concerns with purity and impurity remained quite strong in the early sangha despite Buddha’s rejection of caste)

    So my suggestion is that you remain really alert and cautious around historical claims.Making over-ambitious ones will weaken your argument and loose you readers. I would just fully claim your project as a critical constructive reading of Buddhism that is concerned with unfolding rather than recovering radical elements of Buddhism

    Related to that-I think your experience in Shambhala is also shaping your analyses of class in Buddhism and that you need to find a space for teachers and communities that don’t fit into that model of hierarchy and privilege. If you overstep the scope of your analysis, it’s a turn off as a whole and the interesting points you are making get dismissed. So mostly I would respond with watch out for ahistoric claims and nuance the generalizations in terms of thinking about the next book stage for this project.

    And btw your last sentences “If it’s not a problem for them, it’s not a problem. And furthermore, even if it is a problem, they don’t want to hear about it. That’s all in the relative realm of samsara and they want to exist only in the perfect absolute realm of nirvana, where there is nothing that divides us by race, gender, class or any other social disadvantage.” echo nearly everyone I’ve talked with working on race and class diversity in sanghas….so you are right on the money.


    1. Thanks Ann, all excellent points. It’s true that while the intention of certain Buddhist practices were to counter the caste system, they certainly did not have the power and scope that was hoped for. It’s not magic, it’s human society, and the caste system in India persists even to this day, long after the caste system has been legally abolished. Dalits (Untouchables) today are still at the bottom of the social hierarchy, subject to conditions of extreme deprivation and cruelty.

      1. What I want to come through is two main points: 1) a zeitgeist of nihilism that is exacerbated by a focus on “emptiness” and individual liberation; and 2) the class structure of contemporary Buddhism. If both of those points got lost for the reasons you cited, then I have to rewrite this until those points are clear and well-supported by argument and experience.

  2. No, I don’t think they got lost. I didn’t have time to respond to the first at all and the second, as I said at the end of my post this is coming from the ground-up, too and i think is really important. One problem is that Americans really struggle with class analysis. I did 30 interviews with Gen X teachers and many didn’t know how to identify themselves (which for a Brit would be no problem. I’m not sure what class is like in Canada? I think that class is really murky in American consciousness allows for it to proliferate more insidiously. Might be another aspect to it. I’m really exited to see class being putting on the table here—-just think you need some acknowledgement of those many centers that aren’t marked by privilege and are operating just above the red for years).

    1. Regarding historicity: I am limited by a lack of disciplined study in Buddhist history. Studying the history of “Buddhism” is a nearly impossible task because it requires studying the history of a dozen cultures around the globe. My study of the history of Buddhism has focused on India, how and why the various schools of Buddhism arose in India and then spread to other cultures. I am dedicated to understanding the history of Buddhism, rather than supposing an ahistorical “lineage” that magically comes to us from the Buddha through a continuous succession of teachers, without regard to the social conditions under which it developed. I put out my historical understanding with the hope that others who are more well-read in the history of Buddhism will correct me where I’m wrong. That way I can learn too.

    2. Regarding other Buddhisms that aren’t distorted by class dynamics: The example that comes to mind immediately is Ambedkar’s Navayana, “the New Vehicle.” Scholars have called Ambedkar’s thesis the “Buddhist modern”. Ambedkar set out to promote a Buddhism for which the primary social justice goal was the eradication of the caste system, not only legally, but socially, in the minds of individual practitioners and in the wider community that included Buddhists. He devised a Buddhism that could be practiced by the Dalits, who often had no formal education. He also wanted to level the power imbalance between the monks and the laity. While he recognized the value of the monastic life, he wanted to uplift the role of the laity as the primary teachers of Buddhism to be equal to that of the monastics. Ambedkar also recognized that the whole society would only improve if the condition of women improved, if women were liberated and able to develop their full potential, individually, socially and spiritually. Although caste and class are not the same dynamic, and neither is caste and racism, his Navayana is a model for how to eliminate all major forms of social oppression: caste, class, race and gender.

      Ambedkar died before he could fully realize his vision for “the New Vehicle”. His book “The Buddha and His Dhamma” is only a basic text, and doesn’t get into the project of social liberation that he had in mind. To understand what Ambedkar intended by the New Vehicle, one would have to include all his works, especially The Annihilation of Caste, and the sum total of his life’s work: liberation for the Untouchables, for women, and for the labouring classes.

      There’s a way in which Ambedkar’s Navayana is incomplete and needs to be fleshed out with new approaches to the dharma that are in the spirit of what Ambedkar intended. What intrigues me is how the engaged Buddhism that 17th Karmapa proposes in his book sounds very much like Ambedkar’s Navayana. I believe that The Heart is Noble is one formulation of the dharma that could make a significant contribution to the Navayana. Likewise, many of the books and projects of engaged Buddhism could also make contributions to the Navayana.

    1. I find it very interesting and I would like to post a reply to the forum, but I can’t get past the spam controllers. I keep entering the wrong code. What I was going to say was that the role of identity politics in 21st Century Theravada is to explain identity as a social construction, therefore, as “not self.” Whatever is “I” is socially constructed through my relationships, through language and culture, all of which is socially produced and shared. Much of it is actually imposed on us without our awareness or consent. Deconstructing the “self” means deconstructing the ways in which these social processes of identity are constructed for us and imposed on us, but which are themselves essentially “empty.”Liberation consists in throwing on imposed identities and eventually self-constructed identities as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s