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

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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Good point! Must be close to the modern equivalent of “lay people clothed in white”. I’ve heard of at least two different small communities like this in my own country (small ad hoc groups of people living together in such a fashion). They definitely exist and must exist in most places in the West. I don’t think either would be really patently “early Buddhist” (but would be certainly dedicated anyway! :slight_smile: ).

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Hi!

Wow, I feel very honoured that you guys thought my article was worth discussing here.

Regarding the thread’s title, in my mind my piece wasn’t very provocative for SC people but rather my true target audience, neo-early Buddhists, who I think will easily identify themselves when reading it. I admit, though, that the term is ambiguous, because anyone today practising on the basis of the EBTs can feel addressed by it.

Who are these neo-early Buddhists? My original draft avoided to name individual names but identified two institutions: the Insight Meditation Society in the US (which recently started calling itself Early Buddhist) and the Bodhi College in Europe (whose motto is ‘Early Buddhist Teaching for Today’), implicitly pointing at some, at least, of the people who teach there. Tricycle took this bit out. I see why they’d do this but then it begs all the questions you’ve been raising, and not helping my point.
(It was also Tricycle’s choice to call you ‘Ajahn’ @sujato . No idea why they did this. Apologies.)

The cultivation of wholesome qualities is not in question, I just focused on the renunciation part to target what I see as a neo-early Buddhist incongruence. Brahmavihāra practice, for example, is still subordinated to the salvific goal. I personally don’t think the early Buddhist path is bleak, and I point this out in the idea that no other-world-oriented path can be fully other-worldly: it still brings benefit to this life and infuses it with meaning.

@Benjamin ’s post is useful to respond to.

Because the neo-early Buddhists I address think in terms of one lifetime, they do not and cannot make sense of ‘how long we’ve been in samsara’. They do not and cannot understand saṇkhāra dukkhatā and aim to transcend it. So if they don’t really want to transcend it, why keep saying that everything is dukkha? It’s contradictory to affirming life, that is, to affirming the impermanent and conditioned.

Exactly. I’m not denying one should work with the conditioned, though I think the Vipassanā movement has sometimes forgotten, and through Buddhist modernism, that gets to neo-early Buddhism. I’m just pointing out that those neo-early Buddhists don’t want to break free into the condition-less.

My background, quickly, is this. I’ve been and continue to be in neo-early Buddhist circles—so my piece is a reflection from the inside. The more I learnt about the EBTs the more I noticed inconsistencies between what those texts said and what I was being told they said, and the more I noticed differences between that modern self-identified ‘early Buddhism’ and actual early Buddhism as is in the texts. Without taking sides, my point was to flag these inconsistencies and say that neo-early Buddhists are either unaware or in denial about them and their consequences. And hopefully add some of that ‘reflexivity’ in the mix that @sujato mentioned.

Or to say this briefly: if you’re going to disagree with the EBTs, own it and say it.

(Sorry that I can’t respond to everything that was said, but I do appreciate all the reflections shared here.)

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Ah! I thought so! This really deserves to have some letters to the editor written. It really cut the article off at the knees. I had no idea that IMS has started to call themselves Early Buddhists. Now it all makes perfect sense. Did they previously call themselves Theravada?

I had run across Bodhi College when I saw they had put TFFW on their summer reading list. Yes, that’s the Batcehlors, Peacock and others. Now I know exactly who you are talking about.

And I think you really ought to ask Tricycle to restore your original piece.

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Hi Bernat, Thanks for the article, and the clarifications. I think what you say here about the possibility of being inconsistent, unaware, or in denial is important for anyone to reflect on. Certainly important for me…

For me it also resonated with what Bhante Sujato said at the Friday Night Meditation, which for me had the message (what I took from it, not expressed in exactly these words): What are you scared of that is actually holding you back from letting go?

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Thank you for taking the time to clarify the popular points @Bernat. With this, the importance and intention of the article can be fully appreciated. It is unfortunate that the “reality check factor” was muddled by the editors cut.

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No, I think we’re just chuffed to see one of our friends in a proper publication, which can afford to pay real editors!

Oh.

Oh. Well then.

Obviously it’s a trivial point, but I use bhante or bhikkhu precisely because they are Pali, international, “early Buddhist” terms. And I have done for nearly twenty years? People still keep calling me “Ajahn” and describing me as “Theravadin”. Not that I mind, really, it’s just interesting how persistent these ideas are.

Anyhow, points were made, hopefully it will make a difference to some.

It’s an interesting development in branding. Formerly such groups would have used the “insight” label. But since certain people have been raising awareness of the importance of jhanas, that seems a little old-fashioned, not to say sectarian.

Jayatilleke and K. Ñāṇananda both used the term “early Buddhism”, and arguably they defined a lot of the philosophy of what we call “early Buddhism” today. The main change since then is methodology, with the greater reference to non-Pali texts.

Anything as nebulous as “early Buddhism” can and should be a broad tent, and there is lots of room for difference. To me, the essential factor is that there is a historically critical attempt to ground knowledge in the EBTs.

Which would exclude, not just the neo-early Buddhists spoken of in the article, but also traditional Theravadins, the vipassana movement, and the Thai forest tradition. All of these, like any form of Buddhism, draw inspiration in many different ways from early Buddhism, but they lack a genuinely critical historical perspective.

Rather, they find means to project their own special ideas into the past. Goenka told a fantasy of life in the time of the Buddha where everyone was practicing Goenka technique. Thai forest masters see visions of the Buddha in his lifetime, wearing robes the same color as them. Traditional Theravada insists on the ahistorical notion that Theravada remains unchanged since the time of the Buddha.

The Weingast incident revealed that some contemporary Buddhists are equally invested in having their own ideas and voices being regarded as authentic expressions of the Buddhas teachings. And the credulous acceptance of the hoax by so many in white American Buddhist circles does not speak well to the level of critical acumen at play. It seems that the label “early Buddhism” has acquired a certain prestige that has value beyond the study and practice of early Buddhism per se.

Interesting how this compares with the color of robes in Thailand. Traditionally the standard color was saffron-orange. The forest monks dyed their robes with locally-source jackfruit wood, which came out a tawny golden brown. As the prestige of the forest tradition grew, more monks started wearing that color, although with chemical dyes that often had a distinctly greenish hue absent from real jack dye. Of course they didn’t adopt the practices of the forest monks, just the robe color. Now the “forest” color is so popular it’s meaningless as a signifier of the forest tradition, and most forest monks just use the chemical dye. c’est la vie.

My life in a nutshell.

I believe “upper middle way” is the traditional term.

That was the point?

We’ve discussed this before, but to me, we’re all modernist Buddhists.

Okay, but that’s also quite broad. There are plenty of “non-traditional” Buddhist movements that are not based on the EBTs. For example, there are a variety of what you might call “evangelical” or even “millenialist” movements based on charismatic individuals and heterodox teachings. Dhammakaya is the best known in Theravada context, but there are plenty throughout Asia.

I think I speak for many on the forum when I say, “hey, that sounds great. Tell us more!”

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Yeah, and well, we can just look at what happened with ‘mindfulness’…

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@sujato I don’t want to digress too far from the op, but it really is a fortuitous circumstance, I say this because the cost of admission is not religious by nature. Although not perfect, in my wider experience the individuals that dedicate themselves to long term service roles of these centres, are indeed very committed to the full breadth of the Buddhas teaching. And with this commitment provides terrific conditions for practice. Often, the next course of action with these committed individuals is to dedicate themselves and their practice to the four fold sangha. It’s a garden for Buddhism, those that are ripe flourish, some take seeds to sprout later, others never germinate.

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Hmm, I handn’t noticed that:

The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies offers the integration of study and practice in exploring the many streams of teaching and expression that flow from the sources of early Buddhism.
About Barre Center for Buddhist Studies

Having Ven Analayo there helps with that branding, just as Sayadaws Mahasi and U Pandita helped with their branding back in the late 70s and early 80s.

Terminology is tricky, isn’t it? The Barre Centre introduction I quoted above talks about:
“… the many streams of teaching and expression that flow from the sources of early Buddhism.”
The Burmese vipassana approach that was a key part of establishing their brand obviously doesn’t fit the “EBT” definition used on Sutta Central. But whether the Theravada commentaries that inform it are classified as “early” or “late” is a matter of where historical lines are drawn.

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Given your examples I concede that even "nontraditional Buddhisms is too broad. I think I actually say “modern western Buddhism” in casual conversation, but were I writing I would seek to identify the group or thinker I was referring to more specifically, exactly because one name can’t fit all.

Hmm, Mike, are you implying a cynical attitude here? It’s hard to tell. :thinking:

To clarify: you mean that the Burmese tradition regards the Visuddhimagga not only as important but also as “early”?

I agree with you on this. @sujato the lay community that existed for a time at Wat Buddha Dhamma is another example, tho not at all connected with IMS. Such small “gardens” are bound to pop up here and there, and to nurture, wonderful flowers, wholesome veggies and weeds as well.

*. *. *. *

Congratulations on this usefully thought-provoking article. It made me reach for the search button on several counts.

Firstly I found that like the BCBS website that Mike quotes from, IMS also updated its mission statement – during mid 2020 according to the WayBackMachine – from

Our mission

IMS is a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart. We offer meditation retreats rooted in the Theravada Buddhist [my italics] teachings of ethics, concentration and wisdom. These practices help develop awareness and compassion in ourselves, giving rise to greater peace and happiness in the world.’

to

Our mission

IMS is a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart. We offer meditation retreats and online programs rooted in the Early Buddhist teachings of ethics, concentration and wisdom. These practices help develop awareness and compassion in ourselves, giving rise to greater peace and happiness in the world.

The new link leads to

“Theravada” or “Early Buddhism”? Why “Early Buddhism” More Accurately Reflects IMS’s Roots

… Until recently the tradition of Early Buddhism was more commonly known as Theravada, … In fact IMS originally considered itself to be a Theravadan center. However, modern scholarship has revealed that Theravada is just one of some eighteen schools of Early Buddhism, … The Theravadan school also considers the Pali Abhidhamma and commentaries such as the Visuddhimagga to be authoritative, while other Early Buddhists may not. Hence Early Buddhism and Theravada are not synonymous, although there is much overlap. (full text here)

This shift from a Theravadan label to an Early Buddhist label is not surprising, given the death of Sayadaw U Pandita (somewhere I saw a photo of the post-cremation relics said to prove him to be an arahant) and the current longterm residence of Bhikkhu Anālayo. Also, the original founders have had time to research and inquire more widely than when they returned from Burma and originally set up the Society.

Continuing below …

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I think I remember you indicating in previous threads that you’re at a Goenka centre?

Hi Gillian,

Sorry, it wasn’t supposed to be cynical. More reflecting on the developments. I’ve heard from some people that in the late 70s IMS became concerned that they couldn’t point to a “lineage” (unlike the Zen groups), so they did something about it. As you probably know, IMS had U Pandita visit (resulting in a couple of books) and a number of IMS people spent time in Myanmar in the 1980s under the guidance of U Pandita, some as monastics. Closer to you, Patrick Kearney also followed that path.

As I said, it’s a matter of definition. It is “early” compared to Dogen, for example. And it appears to drawn from commentaries that are considerably older than the Visuddhimagga itself. However, it is “late” compared to the (early) suttas.

In any case, the issues raised in the article do not appear to have anything to do with differences between EBTs and the Theravada. These “world-affirming” ideas do not appear to be a product of the Theravada commentaries.

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Indeed, certain aspects of traditional Theravada are often regarded as more “world-denying” than the Suttas (although I think this is overstated).

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Hi @Akaliko. Yes, that’s right. My profile mentions Dhamma Medini.

What I meant by this… “it really is a fortuitous circumstance … because the cost of admission is not religious by nature” …is that despite the secular claim at the front door, serious students (those that live here) tend to be non-secular and take a very strong refuge in the Buddha Dhamma Sangha.

Although my personal practice has grown beyond the ten day Goenka model, my tradition has served as a gateway to Buddhism better reflected by monks and nuns in groups like this. In my experience, if I mention Goenka, saññas arise, if I mention community, people tend to listen with more objectivity. I understand that there are abhidhamma influenced claims within this tradition, and I certainly don’t agree with everything here, nor do I promote it as being a perfect interpretation of Buddhist texts. Bhikkhu Anālayo unpacks that subject here. Please feel free to share your assessments https://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/pdf/5-personen/analayo/development-insight.pdf

I simply speak for the community, or rather my personal experience of the community. I find the older and more serious students are sincere and ardent when it come to practicing in-line with what the Buddha said. Your mileage may vary. My practice is a continuous work in progress, but the monastic community has helped tremendously in that regard.

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Your sketch is as I would have indicated it. (Visu Teoh was in robes with U Pandita at the same time as Kearney, I recall, tho I would describe neither of them as still within that lineage in the way Sayadaw Vivekananda is, for eg.) I was afraid you were using the word branding, to imply that you perceived a marketing strategy at work. For a centre to adjust its focus as the result of sincere enquiry is rather different than doing so for the sake of promotion. Sorry!!

True, but somehow the comparison only feels useful within the Theravada. Would Dogen have read the Visuddhimagga? I doubt it.

Thank you for pointing out this article. I think if one becomes “disenchanted” with the worldly realm, a certain fascination simply falls away. This phenomena is on a spectrum for any card carrying Buddhist practitioner however the seeds of their kamma are ripening.
The other elegant phrase that came to mind was Ajahn Sumedho’s …it all belongs.
Enjoying these discussions. With mudita. MC

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