A Response to Academic Sociological “Buddhism”
For us, Buddhism is simply what Buddhists do…. —Ann Gleig and Brenna Grace Artinger (emphasis their own)
Not long ago a friendly supporter sent me the link to a strange academic article in the Journal of Global Buddhism, which I had never heard of before, which is just as well, considering. I assume the link was sent to me because the article mentions me personally, along with my friends Brian Ruhe and Manu Rheaume. The article is entitled “The #BuddhistCultureWars: BuddhaBros, Alt-Right Dharma, and Snowflake Sanghas,” by Ann Gleig and Brenna Grace Artinger, both of whom, I assume, are very leftwing feminist types. The article has no obvious date on it other than 2021, and the specification that it is in the Journal of Global Buddhism volume 22, issue 1. The purpose of the article, as far as I can tell, is to give a Social Justice perspective on western Buddhists who reject Social Justice.
In the words of the authors,
It is normative in that we take a critical perspective on these reactionary anti-social justice forms of American convert Buddhism. First, we critique the manner in which right-wing Buddhists, from reactionary centrists to the alt-right seek, in various ways, to naturalize their own social and political positionality. We interrogate this naturalization by identifying the ways in which they selectively read the tradition and by illuminating the historic and cultural situatedness of their own interpretations of Buddhism. Second, we critique these reactionary articulations of Buddhism on the grounds that they reinforce and reproduce normatively gendered and racialized dynamics that are harmful to marginalized populations, particularly Buddhists of Color and transgender Buddhists.
Thus it is fairly clear that anyone who prefers a premodern, or even modern (as opposed to postmodern) interpretation of Buddhism, which would include anyone preferring a tradition extending as far back as a few decades, is labeled a reactionary, and thus a kind of problem to be dealt with. Traditional Buddhism is evidently viewed as standing in the way of a new Social Justice Buddhism that should replace the older versions, at least in the west.
The body of the article itself begins with an account of a meeting of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) in upstate New York in 2018. The original idea was to hold a traditional-type meeting and to discuss a canonical Zen text…but the advent of Donald Trump, his “racist” enforcement of immigration laws, the flareup of the #metoo movement, and the fashion of Social Justice leftism in general, resulted in the (female) priest who was president of the Association converting the conference into an essentially neo-Marxist struggle session. The primary topic was changed to a four-day-long exploration of “the relationship between Zen and racial justice, the #MeToo movement, and power and privilege.” The more or less traditional renewal of precepts on the full moon day “was preceded by a ritual expression of a ‘Statement of Repentance and Recognition’ in which members named the specific suffering caused by sexism, racism, colonialism, and capitalism.” If this does not strike you as particularly Buddhist, then congratulations, you appear to be sane.
I will spare you a line-by-line critique of this article, this insult to actual Buddhism and serious Buddhists. Instead I will simply make a few observations, or maybe more than a few, to demonstrate the idea that genuine Buddhism, as taught by the Buddha and practiced by devout Buddhists for millennia, is under attack and is threatened by being replaced with, again, Buddhism flavored anti-white (and incidentally anti-Asian) cultural Marxism.
For example, the authors almost totally ignore Asian ethnic Buddhism in the west, which is itself pretty damned elitist of the authors, and white-elitist at that. They approach Buddhism in the west as a predominantly white phenomenon, and something that needs to be changed. But probably most of the practicing Buddhists in the west, and certainly most of the devout, strictly practicing ones, are of Asian ancestry.
Furthermore, the authors completely ignore the plain fact that Asian-run Buddhist temples in the west are MUCH less racially diverse, and less inclusive, than Buddhist places run by people of European descent. Burmese temples in America are frequented almost entirely by Burmese people, Vietnamese temples are frequented almost entirely by Vietnamese people, and so on. Thai people rarely go to a Burmese or Sri Lankan temple, even though the school of Buddhism, Theravada, is the same. There is much more Burmese spoken at Burmese temples in America than English or any other language, and non-Burmese visitors, though usually welcome, simply do not fit in and do not feel comfortable. This is the case with most “ethnic” Buddhist temples and monasteries in the west. Thus traditionally Asian Buddhist places in the west tend to be almost ethnic monocultures…but western Buddhism with mostly white congregations are seen by the authors of the article as the problem, and as non-inclusive, because seriously, the primary purpose of Social Justice is to find fault with white people.
Consider this quote from the article: “Asian American Buddhists have been marginalized in American Buddhism and calls on white American Buddhist converts to confront their racism and cultural appropriation as an integral part of their Buddhist practice.” First I would point out that “progressive” white Buddhists are FAR more guilty of marginalizing Asian Buddhists, since they have rejected with scorn the more traditionalist approach taken by Asian Buddhists, with their conservative acceptance of, say, what their own scriptures say. The “reactionary” western Buddhists that the authors see as the problem, on the other hand, are much more likely to go to traditional Asian temples and to adopt a form of Buddhism closer to the Asian originals offered at those temples. In fact the authors of the article blame western “reactionary” Buddhists for being too traditional and thus too Asian.
As for the accusations of cultural appropriation, my own experience (and I’ve had a lot of it) is that Asian Buddhists are delighted and proud at the sight of western people accepting the teachings of the Buddha—after all, Dhamma/Dharma was taught for the liberation of all beings, not just for Asians. Also it vindicates their own faith to see foreigners convert to their own cultural and religious traditions. Furthermore, the Buddha himself was probably ethnically Aryan, and so for westerners to become Buddhists would be less of a case of racial or cultural appropriation than for, say, medieval Chinese or Japanese people to do so. Asian Buddhists are much more offended by arrogant, lax western leftists changing the ancient traditions at will and lecturing Asian born Buddhists that their tradition, going back to the Buddha himself, is sexist, trans-exclusionary, and wrong.
India in the Buddha’s time was much less equitable with regard to outcomes, and with much less “inclusivity,” than today’s America; but the Buddha, presumably a fully enlightened being, did not make an issue of it. He did occasionally ridicule the caste system, and especially the supremacist claims of certain brahmins, but he clearly did not call for recruitment drives to gain more brown-skinned shudras or members of “marginalized” aboriginal hill tribes as converts. Nor did he begin his sermons with repentant acknowledgements of the fact that his Aryan ancestors “stole” the land from the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (which they actually did). He simply allowed all to come and join the Sangha if they were qualified to do so—and race was not an issue.
The ancient texts say that the Sangha is like the ocean: various rivers flow down to the sea, initially distinct and diverse, but when they reach it they cease being identified as this river or that one, and all merge into one Ocean. Likewise, people of different races, classes, and castes enter the Sangha and cease being this or that but all become sons and daughters of the Buddha. “Reactionary” Buddhists in the west hold similar views, but the progressive authors would consider the Buddha’s own attitude to be faulty, let alone that of the traditionalist “reactionaries.”
For that matter, while we are on the subject of inclusion, which is the I in the DEI endorsed repeatedly in the article, the earliest Buddhism, or rather the earliest Buddhism of which we have inscribed records, was NOT trans-inclusive. Trans people were not seen as necessarily immoral, but nevertheless they, and homosexuals also, were not allowed to enter the ordained Sangha. If the progressive quasi-Buddhists continue with their crusade and insist next on trans men (biological females who identify as male) being ordained as Buddhist monks, the traditional “marginalized” Asians will, as I was told by a devout Burmese lady once, “flip.” Which is one reason, I suppose, why the authors of the article largely ignore Asian Buddhists except for a few who have drunk the progressive Kool-Aid.
And please bear in mind that, to a Buddhist, the Buddha was enlightened, and functionally omniscient. But the “Buddhists” of the new left are at least as likely to reject the words of the Buddha (as contained in ancient texts) as to accept them, with that depending on whether the Buddha’s words can be used to support postmodern leftist talking points. Usually they don’t. And if they are not explicitly rejected, usually they are simply ignored.
The new western quasi-Buddhists are not concerned with what the historical Buddha actually taught, or what ancient and medieval Buddhist sages taught, as indicated by the opening quote at the start of this post, extracted from the article. They don’t care if Gotama Buddha was enlightened, or how anyone can be enlightened. This new “Buddhism,” if you please, is viewed as essentially just another sociological category to be exploited for the furthering of Social Justice (neo-Marxist) goals. Progressive “Buddhism” more closely resembles progressive “Unitarianism” than it does traditional Buddhism, with its emphasis on sexism, racism, trans and gay rights, and the bashing of white people, plus one orange one.
Hence the article has essentially nothing to say about Gotama Buddha, or what he taught. Instead we get the idea that Buddhism in a postmodern society simply means whatever leftist converts, who are mostly white, want it to mean.
Again, no heed is paid whatsoever to the Asian “ethnic” Buddhists who form the majority—of Buddhists in the west and also of Buddhists on this planet. Thus most Buddhists even in the west, being traditionalists, would have zero use, for example, for trans “monks” or new additions to Buddhist tenets like the authors’ idea that a new cause of dukkha or suffering should be added to the original three, namely the suffering caused by such evils as “sexism, racism, colonialism, and capitalism.” It seems that all Buddhists in the world, with the exception of a tiny percentage found in places like Starbucks and Spirit Rock, are “reactionary,” and thus standing in the way of making a trans-friendly, anti-capitalist, anti-white Buddhism that the Buddha never taught. In fact NO enlightened being would be likely to teach such obvious worldly-minded spiritually bankrupt drivel.
The authors identify “reactionary” anti Social Justice western Buddhism as primarily a male phenomenon, which it probably is, males being more likely to be scandalized by the rampant effeminacy, irrationality, and subjectivity of the new cultural Marxist version—again, ignoring all the Asians who feel similarly. They identify the resistance to the adharmic “enlightenment” that they endorse under three headings: “(1) reactionary centrists, (2) right-wing Buddhists, and (3) alt-right Buddhists.” Somewhat strangely, they consider me to be a member of third group.
I am called alt-right in the article mainly because I was consulted at the inception of the Alt-Buddhism Reddit site as a Buddhist technical advisor; the founder of it wanted at least to get his Buddhist doctrine right, and he asked me many questions about it a few years ago. Also I used to post articles and such on the site. But the subReddit was pretty much taken over by more or less fascistic militants who wanted a kind of militaristic Samurai Buddhism to blossom in the west, and I lost interest and stopped engaging, probably two years ago at least. But the authors of the article did not dig very deeply, and thus much of their information is not reliable, including their statement that “Two key members of r/AltBuddhism are Brian Ruhe and Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu (David Reynolds).” I think the main reason why they knew of my existence, aside from some digging on Reddit, is because I was mentioned by my friend Manu on Facebook, and interviewed by him on his YouTube channel “Humble Stature.” (One effect of the article has been to inspire him to change the name back to something more obviously right wing, since he got more engagement when he was more obviously political.) Anyway, I could have considered myself “alt-right” a few years ago when the meaning was apparently any rightist who is not a traditional conservative Republican; but the term was pejoratively redefined by the new left—surprise surprise—to mean essentially a Nazi white supremacist; and although to them anyone to the right of Barack Obama is a fascist, I really am not one. If anything I am closer to being a classical liberal in the style of John Stewart Mill, so I suppose that would put me in category (1), “reactionary centrists.”
One interesting thing about this journal article is that it quotes statements of obvious common sense as though they were indicative of some grotesque social dysfunction. Consider this passage criticizing good old Manu:
Next, Rheaume (2020) places socialism and the Left as the opposite of conservatism. It is a “utopic” perspective, which apparently claims “if you just have the government balance everything out and put in the right policies everything will be fine.” Rheaume rejects DEI initiatives as a liberal agenda that tries to externally force social change, and he suggests that the development of such change can only occur on an individual level. Similarly, he states that “political correctness” is the “antitheses” of freedom of speech. In a departure from the Buddhist ethic of “right speech,” Rheaume puts the ethical onus on the listener rather than the speaker. As he puts it, “to be offended is really to not grant someone the benefit of the doubt and shows a weakness in character on the part of the offended” (2020). He claims that “Engaged Buddhism is really leftist politics intertwined with Buddhism” but does not clearly explain why leftist politics are not compatible with Buddhism. His argument seems to rest on the assumption that the Left is focused solely on external social change and Buddhism is focused solely on individual transformation.
It is interesting that, judging from the passage above, the supposedly Buddhist authors do not understand the traditional concept of Right Speech, sammā vācā. First, Manu was not reversing the idea of Right Speech, since he really was not mentioning it. Obviously anyone has the moral obligation not to be intentionally untruthful or offensive. But he is quite right that being offended is always the fault of the offended person, going with basic Buddhist ethics. When two people are conversing or having a verbal exchange, both of them have a moral duty: the speaker has the obligations just mentioned, of being truthful and amicable; and the listener has the obligation, even if the other person has been deliberately dishonest or hurtful, to forgive that person with loving kindness or at least equanimity. But the new left is very keen on shutting down any speech that any leftist may find offensive—speech offensive to non-leftists seems still to be okay, even if the offensiveness is deliberate. For that matter, even telling the truth may be anathema to one of the new western quasi “Buddhists,” regardless of the speaker’s intentions. The very idea, central to Buddhist ethics, that right and wrong in an ethical sense, as well as one’s own happiness or unhappiness, depend solely on one’s own volitions, not on the behavior of someone else, seems to have been rejected with disdain by neo-Marxists playing at Buddhism. Then again, they consider Buddhism to be anything they want it to be.
Also of some interest to me is that my good friend Manu is cited much more than I am, or Brian Ruhe either. In fact the only mentions of my work in the article are with regard to what Manu himself cited in his own content on Facebook and YouTube. Apparently the authors made a very sketchy and superficial investigation of western anti-Social-Justice Buddhist “reactionaries.” The comments regarding me in the article are partly false (like the statement that I was ordained in Myanmar), though it appears more through ignorance than malice. I am glad that the authors quoted my term “Starbucks Buddhism,” attributing it to me, so I am pleased with that particular part of the article.
Here’s one more little glimmer of sanity displayed in the article as the symptom of a social disorder:
The view that there is an innate, more traditional form of Buddhism [i.e., than the “progressive” variety] is common within Theravada communities and is similar to the ethnocentric views described by Paul Fuller (2018).
One example of sociological ignorance concerning the supposed anti-Buddhist or anti-dharmic or just plain harmful quality of capitalism is worthy of mention, I think, and is discussed at some length by Richard Gombrich in his book How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. According to Gombrich, and I see no reason to doubt him overly much on this, Buddhism in the Iron Age Ganges Valley became popular particularly among the new capitalist class in the cities, much like Protestantism in Reformation Europe was very popular with the merchant class and the bourgeoisie in general. The older religious system of Vedism did not resonate so well with people living in towns and basing their livelihood on using the (at the time) new-fangled innovation of money. Some of the Buddha’s most prominent lay disciples, like the banker/moneylender/magnate Anāthapindika, were wealthy new capitalists. So “progressive Buddhism” (or whatever people are pleased to call it) is really more driven by postmodern progressive ideology than by any sort of empirical factuality. Then again, empirical factuality is a tool of white patriarchal oppression. It would be fun to see what such folks make of the fact that the word for “Noble” in Indian Buddhism is Arya. (I can see it now: “All the more reason why Buddhism needs to be changed!”)
It was the reading of this article—and I did manage to read the whole thing, despite its insult to the sensibilities of serious Buddhists around the world—that really impressed upon me a vital duty of “reactionary” Buddhism: we really do have the obligation to study the ancient texts and come as close as we can to understanding what the Buddha, and maybe other Asian Buddhist sages, had to say. There should be the simple acknowledgement that there was a historical person called Gotama or Gautama Buddha, and that he taught something specific which we do not have the right to modify. Then, if for whatever reason we are not in a position to follow that, or if we just don’t want to, at least we are acknowledging that we are not following the ancient teachings perfectly, and owning up to it. Maybe we have good reasons, and maybe we don’t, but we should at least know what actual Dharma is. Really, following the message of very early Buddhism is not easy, just as following the teachings of early Christianity as found in the New Testament (“Gather not up your treasures upon the earth,” “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” etc.) are not easy. But just because we don’t want to follow to the letter what the Buddha taught, we do not have the right to change the teachings of an enlightened being into secular, spiritually bankrupt sociological/political rubbish, out of a futile attempt to satisfy hysterical chronic malcontents who will never be happy because they have rejected true Dharma for watered down Buddhism-flavored Social Justice.
|as always, the best Buddhist path is by the middle|
A note on the picture I didn’t post: I considered posting a picture from the internet of the main author of the infamous article, Ann Gleig. Somebody helpfully posted it on our “reactionary” Buddhist Discord server (the link to which is available on request). Ms. Gleig is a middle aged woman, and a feminist leftwing academic of course, who in the picture is wearing a traditionally masculine short haircut and a traditionally masculine suit and tie. Why feminists most vehemently ranting about women’s rights and women’s empowerment are so likely to culturally appropriate traditionally male traits I do not know, unless it is sheer resentment at their inability to be equal to men by imitating them.