In 1974, Chogyam Trungpa began to introduce “Buddhism without credentials” to America. I wonder if Chogyam Trungpa ever considered what might be the strange, twisted outcome of bringing Buddhism to America? Trungpa precisely addressed the issue in his searing critique, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Yet contrary to his stated intentions, he founded Naropa Institute, which awards masters degrees in Buddhism, The order he established is now the worldwide purveyor of a particular and exclusive brand of Buddhism.
In 1998 Stephen Batchelor introduced Buddhism Without Beliefs, followed by Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist in 2011. To his credit, Batchelor seems to have stuck by his Buddhism without beliefs.
Sulak Sivaraksa introduced the idea of “Buddhism with a small ‘b’”, (Sivaraksa, S., Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, 1992), i.e. a Buddhist practice that goes beyond the scope of formal Buddhist institutions, a kind of ‘Buddhism without walls.”
In the 21st century, we might have to consider practicing No Logo Buddhism, practicing Buddhism without membership in a formal Buddhist organization, i.e., the post-Buddhism Buddhist.
Sangha as Brand
Buddhism in North America has arrived at a very strange place. Buddhist organizations have become sangha as brand. In early 21st century, it appears as a uniquely late capitalist form of Buddhism. The sangha as brand competes with other sangha brands for members, donations, and public acclaim. They compete, so to speak, for market share of potential Buddhist converts. Numbers are important, such as how many people sign up for introductory retreats, how many make it through initiation and training programs, how many go on to become long-term donating members. Members promote the sangha as brand mostly by word of mouth within Buddhist circles, being careful to present the sangha as possessing the most authentic traditions, having the best facilities and the most esteemed gurus. Sangha members protect their brand by ensuring that the right messages are communicated through social media about the sangha.
But one must not be too liberal with who is let in the door. Sangha members must protect the brand from inappropriate and unsavoury characters (read: the marginalized and the lower class) and weed them out early on in the process. How are the marginalized and lower class weeded out? By making the process of “becoming a Buddhist” an expensive one that only the wealthy can afford. Initial training programs cost thousands of dollars to buy into and hundreds of hours to complete.
As Brent Oliver wrote so scathingly in “White Trash Buddhist” (Tricycle, 2014), it’s only affordable by those with enough money and leisure time from work to spend days, weeks and months on retreats in exotic locales. Flying off to long retreats in exotic locales has become a kind of conspicuous consumption for the wealthy leisure class, dressed up as the arduous test of one’s spiritual mettle. But these retreat centres are not the roadside respites of the “dharma bums.” They’re vacation spas for the existentially anxious, a kind of Club Med for people with chronic affluenza.
Members of a Buddhist sangha are very careful to protect their brand and their guru as the brand leader. As Dzogchen Ponlop quipped wryly in an interview with Ethan Nichtern (Oct. 4, 2010, Interdependence Project Podcast), “I’m expected to be the CEO of a corporation.” Indeed, the head guru of a sangha is now the brand leader of the sangha, in precisely the same way that Steve Jobs was the brand leader of Apple, Inc., followed by his successor, Tim Cook.
Just as the sangha must protect, build and promote its brand, it must protect, build and promote the reputation of the guru, it’s brand leader. The ancient tradition of following a guru to guide you on the path to enlightenment has now become the assimilation of the brand by the individual practitioner through association with the guru, the brand leader. You gain access to the brand leader by becoming a student of the guru and attending his (and its usually “his”) retreats and receiving his empowerments. By associating yourself with the brand leader, and becoming known as one of his students, you obtain for yourself the guru’s brand. As a high-level member of the sangha with access to the guru, you enhance your own spiritual image with the sangha brand.
The Post-Buddhism Buddhist
The countervailing approach to sangha as brand is to practice Buddhism without membership in a Buddhist organization, to practice Buddhism without a brand, No Logo Buddhism. One becomes a kind of “Buddhist without walls”, a post-Buddhism Buddhist.
In the 21st century, Buddhist dharma teachings are ubiquitous and inexpensive. The practitioner can download all the teachings one needs online at low cost, often for free. One can direct one’s own study through reading books, bought second hand or borrowed from a local library.
A fellow blogger and I have been discussing what we see as the coming change in leadership from the Boomers to Generation X/Y. That change is coming, but I don’t think that shift will happen in established sanghas. Where I see the biggest change happening is among the leadership of Gen X/Ys who start their own organizations. Most of them are not typical “sanghas” as we’ve known them. They are blogs and “projects”, books, journals, and social networks.
Buddhist Peace Fellowship is run by Gen X/Ys, and has a local sangha in the California Bay Area, but it’s really a network of people across North America connected by their engaged activism. Ethan Nichtern’s Interdependence Project is a local sangha in NYC that draws from multiple lineages—Zen, Theravadin, Tibetan and North American forms. Dharma Punx and Against the Stream are Theravadin groups adapted to the cultures of Gen X/Y.
There are Skype sanghas organized around single issues like Fifth Precept (addiction) and One Earth Sangha (climate change). The Transbuddhists connect through Google Hangouts. Buddhist Geeks is a podcast and a series of conferences. It draws not only from multiple Buddhist lineage streams, but also from science, culture, and social justice perspectives.
The days of the traditional one guru, one lineage, one sangha are numbered if not already gone. They will persist for as long as the 60-70 years olds can keep them going. But they’ll soon be eclipsed by new forms of connection and community created by Gen X/Y that are urban and mobile. They are based on communication networks, fluid and socially diverse. They draw from a vast cross-section of ideological lineages. Gen X/Ys may belong to a traditional sangha, but they are also active with several Buddhist networks.
Generation X/Ys are the “no logo” generations that are skeptical of hierarchies and slick marketing. They prefer organizations that are flat and democratic. They have multiple affiliations and change groups frequently. The Buddhist communities that arise from this chaotic matrix may take surprising new forms.
DIY Buddhism: Going No Logo
Doing it No Logo can be a difficult path because you have to figure out much of it on your own. You have to develop a great deal of discipline to do your own practice daily, read and study on your own, and work to find and maintain those friendships that will support you through confusion, doubt and difficult times.
A friend and I both recently left the rigid confines of a Buddhist organization. For differing reasons, we decided that we were no longer comfortable practicing within a formal Buddhist sangha. We have decided to go the No Logo route. We download teachings and take online courses separately, but then come together to share what we are learning, how we apply it in our lives. We are free to say what we want and use critical thinking without worrying if we appear ‘Buddhist’.
No Logo Buddhism is a courageous approach that’s more in line with the traditions of the ancient Buddhist siddhas. The early practitioners lived the homeless life, wandered from temple to cremation grounds, from monastery to village square, without the support of a retreat centre or meditation instructor. The Buddha attained his own enlightenment this way. After receiving teachings from several yogis, he found them all lacking and then devised a practice for himself that led to his own enlightenment.
You get no pats on the back for No Logo Buddhism, no recognition for having completed a course or retreat program. The Buddha said that we all have the capacity to awaken, and everything we need is present right in front of us in our daily lives. The rest is up to you to work out your own enlightenment.