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Provocative "Tricycle" article on "The New Tradition of Early Buddhism"

The Winter issue of Tricycle magazine has just been posted online and one of the keynote articles is a fascinating and provocative one on what the author calls “neo-Early Buddhism.” Obviously the article is copyrighted so I can’t share more than a brief quotation from it here but I trust that many who post here have access to the magazine. It would be wonderful to hear your thoughts.

The author note is: “Bernat Font-Clos is a junior meditation teacher from Barcelona and a postgraduate researcher at the University of Bristol. His dissertation explores feeling tone in early Buddhist literature.”

And here’s the concluding paragraph of the article:

“The recent trend in dharma circles that we may call “neo-early Buddhism” differs in fundamental respects from the early Buddhist texts it claims as basis, and it should be more open about that. Chiefly, it is life- or world-affirming, which early Buddhism is not. I have argued that the doctrine that “everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha,” one element of the rationale for wanting to leave the world, is a renunciant doctrine. Since in affirming life neo- early Buddhism affirms the impermanent and conditioned rather than attempting to get away from it, it is senseless for it to maintain that everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha. I have suggested that this inconsistency stems from two things: from not instinctively regarding life as cyclical and from an emotional difficulty in disagreeing with the Buddha. The latter facilitates relating to those teachings that create cognitive dissonance in a way that is dishonest and unhelpful, planting the seeds of future confusion, stuckness, or even crises of faith, and that does not help to harmonize our values, our goals, and our means to reach them. I hope I am exaggerating.”

The New Tradition of Early Buddhism

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Thank you for sharing, I believe the author @Bernat is also a member of this forum.

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Anyone who is of the same generation minority as Bikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro had their roots in Buddhism firmly established before the advent of neo-early Buddhism, and from that vantage point were able to discern the change in approach about the turn of the millennium. The logic of the Bodhi/Thanissaro path is based solely on the internal integrity of the suttas where a common meaning links groups of texts as gradually affirmed by experience. That is the simple rationale which relies on an ongoing comparison between one’s own experience and what is written, which with the decades of constant application becomes proven knowledge. Therefore the neo-early Buddhist avoidance of the cyclic nature of life and that everything conditioned and impermanent is dukkha, is seen as folly because the cause and its results have already been known.

In the neo-Buddhist approach can be seen an avoidance of impermanence and a preference to discuss non-self as an isolated phenomenon. Such attitudes are blind to the logic of the suttas and actually pander to self interest, although probably function as a vehicle attractive to millennial beginners, with its overly mental characteristic. The MB is reluctant to get their hands dirty with things like dead flowers and the life cycle of the human body.

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Thanks for sharing, and thanks Bernat for the essay.

I found it a little difficult to really grapple with it, because there weren’t any clear examples of “neo-early Buddhism”. Perhaps those more immersed in contemporary western Buddhism might see it more clearly, but for me it was a bit unclear.

And by the way, do we have a better word than “western Buddhism”? Or “American Buddhism”? There are plenty of Buddhists in “western” countries who have an Asian cultural background. There’s “secular Buddhism”, but that’s both too broad (there are secular Buddhists in Asia) and too narrow (not all western Buddhists are secular). Can we say “white Buddhism”?

There’s also a distinction to be made on the grounds that “buddhism” is not really ever a single coherent thing, and never has been. The Buddha taught dhamma, which essentially meant that he taught whatever would be most effective to help ease the suffering of the people he was with. He didn’t just shove impermanence down people throats, he responded to their life situation. The key here is that it’s fine, indeed essential, to meet people where they are and walk with them on the first steps of their journey; the question is whether that is all there is to it.

One of the culprits here is the elevationist tendency in white spirituality: everything is lifted from somewhere else and presented in the most hushed, awed tones of reverence, while at the same time any differences are explained away or ignored, because the highest value is ultimately not freedom or transcendence, but niceness.

One of the underlying issues is broader than the specific argument of the essay, and that is that any movement inspired by “early Buddhism” must have a certain reflexivity to it; obviously, we are late Buddhists. This really applies to any kind of Buddhism at all, since all Buddhists think they are practicing what the Buddha taught; “early Buddhism” just brings a critical historical perspective to it.

This is why I don’t restrict my teaching to just the Suttas but also talk about the traditions, the evolution and change of ideas, and the contemporary context. We are, of necessity, adapting and changing things. We can do that wisely and well, or we can do it dogmatically and harmfully. An overly dogmatic “early Buddhist fundamentalism” is no less inauthentic than an overly accommodating “neo-early Buddhism”.


Oh also, Bernat if you’re seeing this, thanks for using my translation, but it’s “Bhikkhu Sujato” as an author’s name, and “Bhante” or “venerable” in ordinary use. I never use the Thai word “Ajahn”, as we are not in Thailand. Thanks!

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I couldn’t access the full article, but as a 1992-born Buddhist who was hanging out in the cadaver lab (with actual dead bodies) circa 2010, I wonder where these life affirming millennial Buddhists are, because I haven’t really met one in Australia (or anywhere else). Is there some US context I’ve missed?

*I mean, if we haven’t escaped future births, we’re all a bit life affirming, but I don’t think that’s what was meant.

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I shared the Bernat article with a friend here in Tucson, Arizona who, while being a lineage holder in Korean Zen, is well-versed in and deeply appreciative of Early Buddhism. He’s also the author of an excellent book, “Mindfulness Yoga,” that grounds hatha yoga practice in satipatthana practice.

I really appreciate the way Frank Jude Boccio parses the purely psychological interpretation of dukkha on the part of Phillip Moffitt (and, allegedly, Thanissaro Bhikkhu) with the more complex shadings in the suttas. More provocative but in a good way is his proposed “third way” of looking at dukkha in actual practice. I actually think this piece is a pretty substantial improvement on the Bernat article and makes a great bookend to it. Doubtless several far more learned posters here will have more insight than I do.

http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/07/meaning-of-duhkha-for-zen-naturalism.html?m=0

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Perhaps slightly off topic, but I could read the article in a “private window” after refreshing my IP. Tricycle gives my a certain number of free views per month…

I certainly meet the “life affirming” angle very often in my local “Insight Meditation” community (in New Zealand). Most of them have not read original suttas or sutras much and rely on teachers and books by modern teachers.

I appreciated Bhante @Sujato’s nuanced response. Actually, I think the Essay itself is also quite nuanced, and I was grateful for it.

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I came here to say this. I really have no idea who these neo-Early Buddhists are. Perhaps it was not possible in Tricycle to call them out? I’d love to hear from the author who is being talked about. The only one who comes to mind is Gill Fronsdal.

I wonder if it is just talking about people in the mindfulness/vipassana community who happen to teach from the suttas sometimes.

As far as the name “neo-Early Buddhist”, is this something that was invented for this article? (That’s a fine thing to do, I’m just curious) Because I think what is really meant here is “psudo-Early Buddhist” although I can see how that term is far from neutral. I think the term neo-Early Buddhist is far more appropriate for what you find a lot of here on this forum. People who are obviously not the early Buddhists of 2,500 years ago to whom the term should rightly belong, but who claim an affinity with the texts that in theory these original early Buddhists would have used.

Only if you want to cause more problems than you are trying to solve. Perhaps “white bread Buddhism,” but not everyone would get the joke. I appreciate that we need a good term, but white Buddhism is totally not it. It doesn’t really tell you anything other than who are the loudest and most privileged people within the group. So, no.

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There are differences in interpretations among teachers. a few examples -
Re- precepts. Some teach it in a positive way, first precept is to protect life. Some teach as restraint from killing.
Re- metta. Some teach to have a good heart, help others. Some teach it as a mental state, without suggestion on activities.

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I usually use “Modern Buddhism” or “Buddhist Modernism” when referring to the global ways in which moderns have adapted Buddhism… though it’s also an imperfect term (as any will be).

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I generally liked the idea of the article to question the historical validity of life-affirming Buddhism and Buddhists. And I don’t really understand the confusion “where to find” those neo-early Buddhists.

But I also seriously disagree with the idea that there is a neo-early Buddhism at all. The suttas are full of life-affirming attitudes, for example when lay people are told that donating to the sangha leads to divine rebirth or rebirth in a rich family. From a liberation perspective such a teaching would be misleading at best, and ensnaring at worst.

The lived discourse of liberation - dispassion, withdrawel, etc. - was for a select few in the past, and it is now as well. The ‘neo’ is only in the zeitgeist-specifics of today, but not in principle.

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Who the “life affirming” Buddhists are is not hard. I just don’t understand who would fall into that group and also claim to adhere to the Early Buddhist texts. Unless what he is saying that all the life affirming Buddhists are trying to say that their position is Early Buddhist without actually following the Early Buddhist texts.

Some names of these groups (and I suspect more importantly people) would be great.

Also, I think the “life affirming” label is inaccurate as you point out that there is much that is indeed life affirming in the texts. I think it’s more accurate to maybe call it “Samsara accepting/embracing”.

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The article is referring to EBT adherents which includes this site. To recognize the errant attitude to the dhamma it’s necessary to have a good knowledge of the suttas as a standard of comparison. The criticism in the article is warranted because of the avoidance of impermanence, but on the other hand the author is taking the view from the arahant’s position and is not aware that progress on the path utilizes conditioned phenomena.

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There are various books by Secular Buddhism advocates, such as Stephen Batchelor, which have quite an impact in circles where people don’t read the originals.

Batchelor takes the Buddha’s four noble truths to be four challenges to our ordinary way of approaching life. They boil down to a template for life: Embrace, Let go, Stop: Act!
Review: Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor | The Buddhist Centre

And Batchelor does present his point of view as the essence he found by reading the early texts.

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Only if we are OK with excluding and possibly offending Buddhists from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. How about “non-traditional Buddhism” or “non-traditional Buddhisms”.

Sadhu x3.

There’s a difference between this type of affirmation, which requires a belief in rebirth, and the type of recently sprung-up life affirming Buddhism that appeals to those who think they only live once. See @Jacky’s post above.

Yes, he is very explicit about this. And it’s unfortunate because many people who read his books don’t study the suttas.

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Good article. Though, maybe it does veer towards comparing renunciants in the early texts with modern lay people. I’m not sure how deeply early lay people as described in the suttas go down the renunciation path (apart from short tastes in Uposatha days etc.).

I also think the article makes the renunciation in the suttas sound more callous than it actually seems to me. Sure, the kind of absolute solutions to absolute problems as formulated in many religions can often seem extreme when taken to their full and complete logical conclusions. Full-on renunciation is tempered by some other things in the suttas (Brahmaviharas, the strong emphasis on respect for parents etc.). It does necessarily get to places that would seem rather uncomfortable for the layperson.

On renunciation and laypeople, there does definitely seem to be a subset of early followers, “lay followers dressed in white” who were celibate, who would have been more seriously dedicated to renunciation. On this forum, there is actually quite a high number of monastics, people contemplating or have contemplated becoming monastics, and modern equivalents of the “lay follower dressed in white”.

However, how typical are forum members? And that goes also back to the question of who are these neo-early Buddhists. In my experience, modern Western convert Buddhists tend, on average, to be rather educated and affluent. They’ve probably dipped their toes into different flavours of Buddhism and likely other spiritualities too. I guess maybe we are talking about those who regularly read the suttas and take them seriously and are somewhat familiar with textual scholarship and related theories. It’s probably not a particularly large group.

In modern Buddhism where would be the equivalent of “laypeople dressed in white”? Perhaps the emphasis on renunciation just isn’t very prominent (or shied away from). That’s perhaps a dissonance the article correctly identifies. But is that true for “neo-early Buddhists”? I have no idea.

For Christianity, the Reformation, the printing press, improved education led to an explosion in ordinary people reading the Bible (rather like Buddhist “Protestantism” where people go back to the early texts and away from later layers of interpretation). Sometimes those later layers of interpretation/orthodoxies can have some advantages. Sacred texts can be ambiguous, confusing and not straightforward to interpret (and have frankly rather weird parts). Sometimes these orthodoxies can have some of those weird parts smoothed out (and be more middle of the road). The Reformation threw up its share of weird and wacky sects as various charismatic teachers gathered followers (if one is having difficulties making sense of a sacred text, one solution is to find a teacher who can tell you what it really means :slight_smile: ). Similarly, I suspect in the long run, a return to early texts will throw up quite a bit of diversity (perhaps not all of it very healthy)!

We have also modern scholarship thrown into the mix. Scholars in the West honed their skills over the decades on analysing the Bible (often quite reductively by scholars who are not Christian themselves). In this period, along with the internet and the availability modern translations of the suttas, we have this textual scholarship focused now on the suttas thrown into the mix. It makes for quite a heady combination!

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The article is an interesting one, it’s either way over my head or positively confusing or both, but I struggle with the box that the author puts neo/eb into. Are there neo traps on the way to my kuti that I should be aware of?

The author doesn’t at all mention the practices of Metta, Karuna, Mudita, or upekkha, which indeed work to soften the hard road between the conditioned and the condition-less. Instead, there are terms like disengage and detachment and a rather bleak picture of making dukkha the salient feature of life, maybe it is, but not in a depressing way. I definitely wouldn’t use the words disengage and detach. It’s my belief that the divine abidings are the important features of life. Metta, equanimity, and all that in between.

If someone argues that a good experience that ends in suffering, was ultimately worth the suffering, then they haven’t fully understood just how long we’ve been in samsara. And because they haven’t fully understood how long we’ve been in samsara, they haven’t understood the full extent of dukkha. If they don’t understand dukkha, then passion arises, and if it leads to passion, it’s not the path. Dukkha is wearisome, and even the best experiences become a reminder of that. If it wasn’t for the Brahmaviharas, I could see how the path would seem pessimistic, but rather, it is full of love and joy and with some work, equanimity! Experience joy, but don’t lose the balance of your mind when it’s gone. Am I way off base here?

If neo Buddhist spread the idea of life affirmations in one hand but in the other hand judge conditioned reality as dukkha. Wouldn’t the practice of the divine abidings reconcile these apparent opposites? We must work within the field of the conditioned in order to break free into the condition-less. Letting go of the world is one aspect, cultivation of wholesome qualities is the other.

I live in a community of lay followers who are all celibate, who alternate between five and eight precepts regularly, who meditate a minimum of three hours daily, and who serve the community by hosting courses that spread (a digestible amount of) dhamma to people who would otherwise not-likely visit a vihara. Although small, these communities exist all over the globe and I believe could be the modern equivalent to “lay people dressed in white”? At the very least, we come close. Often these places have a bad rep on this forum because we’re technically a secular educational facility (or perhaps we’re neo eb?). Whereas in reality, the people living here are hardly secular.

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I enjoyed the article, it made me think.

In the suttas we have on one end:

[Iti 22] “Mendicants, don’t fear good deeds. For ‘good deeds’ is a term for happiness, for what is likable, desirable, and agreeable. I recall undergoing for a long time the likable, desirable, and agreeable results of good deeds performed over a long time. … ”

and on the other end:

[SN 22.122]“Reverend Koṭṭhita, an ethical mendicant should properly attend to the five grasping aggregates as impermanent, as suffering, as diseased, as an abscess, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as falling apart, as empty, as not-self. […] It’s possible that an ethical mendicant who regards the five grasping aggregates in this way will realize the fruit of stream-entry.”

Let’s be honest, your average psychologist would probably regard the latter teaching as dangerous. It’s an incredibly challenging thing to hear from The Buddha. It’s certainly not conducive to remaining a “productive” member of society (maintaing a career, familty, etc.)

It seems hard to navigate when to keep it light and when to bring out the deep stuff. It seems like, maybe you need to come to a certain level of worldly mental health before the deeper stuff can be useful? :man_shrugging: I dunno…

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The article was poorly written in terms of “getting the point across”. In brief, it was wordy, long and difficult to decipher the general message. It reminds me of typical dhamma talks by Western monastics; much said, little actually said.

My review: The title said more than the content. Disappointing and I’m not sure what she was trying to say.

I was looking forward to an article which criticized EBT Sect of Buddhism because I enjoy seeing that which is rarely spoken in English, certainly in this particular group. Lastly, quoting DT Suzuki and placing it in Tricycle pretty much says where Modern Western Buddhism is already at. Ironically, I think the author was trying to speak against those very points.

That reminded me of another example (though a Christian one), George R. Price. He was a brilliant academic in theoretical biology. He then became a Christian and took that to its logical conclusions, gave away his possessions, took homeless people and alcoholics into his house, gave up academia to help the downtrodden. Things spiralled downwards: those he was housing started stealing his possessions, he was eventually evicted from his house and ended up living in squats in London. He got depressed and eventually ended up taking his own life (though some health issues may have contributed to that). It was a sad way to go. Some more mental stability and the support of a like-minded community might have helped a lot. His intentions were noble, and principles he was trying to following generally commendable, but this examples shows that it’s probably not advisable for everyone to take some spiritual paths all the way (depends on support and circumstances too).

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