Buddhism under Capitalism: understanding “neoliberalism”

One of the terms used in talking about the ways that Buddhism is being transformed in modern society is “neoliberalism.” A quick glance at Wikipedia explains that it is used to identify a radical version of laissez-faire capitalism—meaning capitalism unconstrained by governmental regulations. We see in the mania for deregulation dating at least from the Reagan–Thatcher era up to the present efforts by the current administration. As expressed  by Adam Tooze in a column in the New York Times <here>: “If neoliberalism is about anything, it has been about creating the largest possible economic space for competition.” Actions such as those of Scott Pruitt and of his successor, Andrew Wheeler, as director of the Environmental Protection Agency are instances of this meaning of neoliberalism. Likewise the active program to undermine the rights of labor and actively undermine the legal status and credibility of unions is motivated by neoliberal conceptions. Similarly, this attitude is implicit in arguments against the Affordable Care Act: If you can’t afford your own health insurance, then why should anyone else help you out? The same is true of the standard conservative trope noted by David Roberts that “liberals are the real racists, because they keep calling attention to race and dividing people up by race, while conservatives are just trying to be individuals and judge people by the content of their character” <here>.

What this economic definition of neoliberalism does not include is the social philosophy of radical autonomy. This “social neoliberalism” is the dimension of neoliberalism that more clearly influences the ongoing development of Buddhism in the US. This is evident in attitudes that deny the role of society and culture, claiming instead that the individual is entirely free and therefore entirely self-responsible. (The spectre of Ayn Rand walks the land.)

A revelatory example of social neoliberalism at work is discussed in an essay in Scientific American. “More recycling won’t solve plastic pollution,” by Matt Wilkins <here>. The subtitle is particularly telling: “It’s a lie that wasteful consumers cause the problem and that changing our individual habits can fix it.” Although Wilkins doesn’t use the the term neoliberal, he highlights the way in which individual responsibility is deployed in the service of corporate capitalism. “Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.”

He highlights the role of “Keep America Beautiful,” an industry advertising group that gave us the word “litterbug.” But Keep America Beautiful has not only an historical role in increasing awareness of individual actions, for example with its anti-litter and recycling campaigns, but also for actively resisting political solutions. Keep America Beautiful “has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behavior and actively thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.” This is, then, an example of the neoliberal emphasis on individual action, individual responsibility being presented as the only acceptable answer to the societal problems created by laissez-faire capitalism—the production of single-use plastics.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism? It is this aspect of neoliberalism as a social philosophy of radical self-autonomy that informs much of the present-day rationale for Buddhist practice and mindfulness. The wide range of issues that meditation is supposed to be good for are represented as individual issues. The almost deliberately hazy term “happiness” covers a lot, but is often used to both give primacy of value to one’s emotional state, and to place responsibility for that with the individual.

Just as both economic values and social attitudes align with one another, they both also align with religious values prevalent in American popular religious culture. Daniel Dubuisson (“Exporting the Local: Recent Perspectives on ‘Religion’ as a Cultural Category” Religion Compass 1.6, 787–800) explains that as the present-day conception of religion developed under “Protestant influence…it evolved toward an increasingly austere conception in which religion becomes an individual phenomenon linked to the individual interior conscience and to the personal relationship of the individual with the divinity” (789). In other words, (1) economic individualism (the measure of each corporation being its ability to profit individually in the marketplace unconstrained by government regulation), (2) the radical self-autonomy of neoliberalism as a social philosophy, and (3) religious individualism of an isolated interiority all coincide, and all mutually reinforce one another.

During the writing of this post, Matthew O’Connell at Post-Traditional Buddhism posted a podcast of an Imperfect Buddha conversation with Ron Purser (31.IBP) titled “Neo-liberal Mindfulness, Neo-liberal Buddhism.” (inside joke: does listening to IBP podcasts make one a śravaka?) The interview makes a valuable contribution to understanding this topic.

It is worth pointing out that a conclusion from this reflection is that social action is not simply the sum total of individual actions. The idea that social is nothing more than the sum total of individual actions would be based on the neoliberal notion of radical autonomy—that each person’s action is only their own action rather than being interconnected with the actions of others. A Buddhist modernist version of this is the view that there is only personal karma, an interpretation of karma that makes it fit with neoliberal preconceptions. However, social factors affect individual actions. that is, there are varying degrees of individual autonomy, or what might be called relative autonomy. Or, in yet other words, one is also responsible for one’s own actions as well. But from a perspective of the self as a conditioned existent, the debate over whether there is such a thing as social karma becomes a pseudo-problem—of course there is social karma, it is called history.

Neoliberal conceptions underlie claims that mindfulness training programs, and also contemplative education programs, will transform society. Such wholly unsubstantiated claims regarding social transformation by means of individual transformation (both kinds of “transformation” usually being very ill-defined, emotively powerful, empty signifiers) are given in support of the establishment of such programs. These claims form part of the siren’s song enticing people to jump on the bandwagon. Sitting quietly attending to one’s thoughts/experiences/breath/body for twenty minutes a day is presented as a bold, and even heroic act. Encouraging others to do so is presented as key to replacing the current viciously competitive order with one that is supportive of all society’s members, while ignoring the massively entrenched power of capitalist institutions in favor of a mystical notion of all wisdom being inside oneself.

Glenn Wallis summarizes this neoliberal strategy in his forthcoming and very important (very soon, hold your breath) A Critique of Western Buddhism (here). In the first chapter’s section on “well-being” he points to the adoption of programs of well-being by corporations as a response to the approximately $500 billion in losses attributable to “a dissatisfied workforce” and “a brutally competitive work environment staffed by a fundamentally insecure, unequal, underpaid, yet enthusiastically materialistic, populace.” The response is to inject “the ideology of the happiness industry into the workplace.”

“The key message of that ideology is that workers’ unhappiness lies inside themselves.”

In other words, that corporate response to worker dissatisfaction (a nice euphemistic understatement of conditions that lead to such extremes as suicide and drug addiction) is exactly like making plastic pollution the responsibility of the individual. I can dutifully recycle every week, as I have done for decades, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to pollute. I can dutifully spend 20 minutes twice a day (of my own time) attending to my breath, and it will not change the profit motivations driving a system that continues to make workers insecure, unequal, and underpaid. The conditions of the system remain an accepted constant, unquestioned and therefore unchanging. The individual is treated as responsible for his/her own happiness, despite the conditions of the system.

There is a subtle but critical difference between accepting that there are things I can’t change (true), and that the only thing I can change is myself (false).


on not capitalizing (on) the dharma

In both popular and academic usage it now seems normal if not normative to see “Dharma.” This pious orthography has dysfunctions both in the popular and academic realms, while also allowing self-help usages to propagate a social-norm, commodified spirituality, one that fits in without providing any alternative to that spirituality.

Popularly, “the dharma” has effectively become a synonym for God, or Universe, and is usually rendered as “the Dharma.” The pervasive suppression of difference created by Perennialism extends its effects in this fashion. After all, we are told (explicitly in some Perennialist writings or it is simply taken implicitly as true),

• there is only one Truth, and

• all religions are pointing to that singularity,

• so these are just different words for the same Reality.

In conversational usage it becomes a marker, a self-branding of a certain way of being spiritual without being religious. The term effectively becomes meaningless (an empty signifier) other than as a conversational affectation, a marker of self-identity by affiliation.

On the other hand one frequently encounters academics distinguishing between “the Dharma” as the teachings of the Buddha, usually implicitly Śākyamuni, and “dharmas” as the ultimate psycho-ontological constituents of existence. Oh, shades of Max Müller’s disease of language lurk dangerously close. English allows us to be way more precise in certain ways than other languages, including Sanskrit, which doesn’t have capitals (see Steve Collins on this), and this despite the commonplace that Sanskrit (or Tibetan) is more precise, a characterization that may be true of the psychological terminology available, but not necessarily generalizable.

But to distinguish between “Dharma” as the teachings, and “dharmas” as psycho-ontological elementals is to create an obscuring distinction. Both are rooted in the same semantic range (which is quite large, see Alf Hiltebeitel, Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion and Narrative, Oxford, 2011, which runs to about 750 pp.), but which I understand (as someone who thinks about Buddhist thought, and admittedly not as a Sanskritist) to be rooted in a common significance of what is actual. The claims based on this fundamental significance then are that: the Buddha spoke what is actual, the elemental constituents of psycho-ontology are actual, and so the significance is—prior to the obscuring distinction—fundamentally the same. The Buddha does not talk about “the Dharma” in the sense of some transcendent reality to which he had privileged access. He simply talked about what is actually the case. Indeed, this allows us to question whether what we are told the Buddha said is actually the case for us.

In the grey borderlands between popular and academic is the self-help usage, where Buddhist identity is often more pronounced, or more loudly announced. Here “the Dharma” as transcendent absolute becomes part of the rhetoric of the culture, but cloaks the same (tired) “spiritual” teachings that have been reworked for a century and a half. Ira P. Helderman (“Drawing the Boundaries between ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ in Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2016) has noted that kind of usage on the part of psychotherapeutic clinicians involved in the promotion of mindfulness. In response to a conference theme that asked “Rooting Ourselves or Uprooting Our Traditions?: Critical Conflicts in the Interface between Buddhist and Western Psychology,” one participant

answered the conference title’s question by concluding that it is not possible to fully “uproot [Buddhist] traditions.” He stated that there is indeed an essence to Buddhist teachings, what he called “the dharma,” the awareness of which will always be achieved if mindfulness is diligently practiced, regardless of the theoretical terms in which it is couched:

When we speak about the dharma as the sort of nature of things, the truth of how things happen, I’m not so concerned because it will remain untouched. We can’t do it any harm; it is durable; it is beyond form. (Helderman, 951–952)

Although there is a superficial similarity between the first part of the embedded quotation and the description of dharma as what is actual given above, the balance of the embedded quotation reveals the interpretation of “the dharma” as a transcendent, ahistorical ultimate, in other words as “the Dharma.” This usage identifies the dharma, in the phrase I created to get this idea across to my students, as something that is “absolute, eternal, permanent, unchanging.” (These are not four distinct characteristics, but fourfold rhetorical mashup intended to be understood as cumulatively expressing an attitude—which is why there is no “and.”) The participant quoted above evidences a kind of anti-intellectual Buddhism which, to adopt a now passé phrase, believes that “everything I needed to know about Buddhism I learned on my meditation cushion.”

The struggle to pay attention to one’s breath, the pain in one’s knees, the worry about a friend’s health, paying attention to one’s breath—these are all dharma. The imaginal absolute, “experience” of which the ego can claim as evidence of superiority, well, yes, is as itself an empty, impermanent, ephemeral, conditional concept also dharma.

This is America, not the end

Scott Mitchell has commented at length on the reblog of Glenn Wallis’ call to arms with a very valuable reflection providing perspective on both what is “America” and what is “Buddhism,”

Worth reading and further reflecting on and if I could figure out how to reblog it I would, but instead you’ll have to go <here>

the unreliability of doctrine as a foundation for action

What I’ve previously identified as the “indefinite malleability of doctrine” is evident in a report in the NYTimes “An ICE Raid Leaves an Iowa Town Divided Along Faith Lines” (here). As has happened elsewhere, when ICE raided a local cement factory, taking 32 people into custody, reactions in the community of Mount Pleasant were not simply divided, but divisive.

Although the headline refers to divisions along “faith lines,” the faith involved is different interpretations of Christian teachings—with those on both sides of the debate quoting different passages from the same scripture, the Bible that they claim to share.

Whether one asserts that Trump was chosen by God and that we have a duty to obey our government, or see kindness as a duty higher than that of obedience—doctrinal and textual supports can be offered. This has of course often been the case, as for example in the arguments both for and against slavery in Antebellum politics. (Readers are encouraged to insert their own additional examples here _____________________.)

Despite which, the intellectualist fallacy—that thought determines action—is so deeply ingrained in our social rhetoric, that the (obvious) consequences of doctrinal malleability are ignored. Since doctrine is indefinitely malleable, it can be warped to support positions committed to for other reasons, whether economic or social, racial or gender, psychological or familial. It cannot therefore be relied upon as a foundational guide for proper action.

This includes Buddhist doctrine and Buddhist morality. Discussions of contemporary social issues in Buddhist contexts seem to often have recourse to finding some doctrinal basis somewhere in the vast array of Buddhist texts, and then building an argument for the position one wants to promote from there.

Without making it a doctrinal claim, but rather simply an intuition about how the world works, the vision of all things as interconnected obviates any foundational approach to morality. Any doctrinal claim is indefinitely interconnected with everything else, and therefore cannot be employed as a foundation for action.

One of the facets of sailboats that fascinates me is that the mast and boom and sails are all in tension with one another. The boat is an interconnected whole, the mast connected to the keel, but in dynamic tension. It is the tension that allows the boat to sail, to move before the wind, not some foundational grounding—which would instead sink the boat or mire it in a single place. This is just an explanatory metaphor, not an argument by analogy. If it helps you to understand what I’m trying to say, that’s good enough.


Re-Thinking Buddhist Studies, a modest proposal

If the goal of Buddhist studies is to understand Buddhism, then the questions we should be asking are about what was/is important to Buddhists–instead of abstracting Buddhism out of its lived context, and treating it as a variation within a structure that is itself abstracted from liberal Protestant Christianity. How we formulate “Buddhism” as an object of study, both explicitly and implicitly, significantly predetermines what we can say about Buddhism. It is, therefore, necessary to avoid unreflectively adopting an anachronistic framework of understanding for our studies.

I recently encountered the idea that Christianity fetishizes doctrine (sorry don’t recall source). Thus, while there is some sense to focusing on doctrine in the study of Christianity, to presume the centrality of doctrine for the study of Buddhism is an argument based on the presumption that the analogy between Christianity and Buddhism is itself strong enough to make the following argument—

1. Christianity and Buddhism are similar in that they are both religions,

2. Christianity fetishizes doctrine,

Therefore Buddhism also fetishizes doctrine.

This argument is in fact a petitio principii fallacy, since the understanding of religion implicit in the first premise is itself an abstraction from Christianity, in other words it already includes the centrality of doctrine and smuggles that idea into Buddhism. Modernist claims that Buddhism is “really” a way of life, or “really” a philosophy, or “really” a psychology in no way avoid this presumption of doctrinal primacy. Such discursive shifts retain the doctrinal focus, while shifting from a religious frame to some other. These alternative discursive frames have their own presumptions and thereby simply introduce different sets of doctrinal commitments into the understanding of Buddhism.

While doctrine was important to many intellectuals within the Buddhist tradition, by analogy with our contemporary religious world, intellectuals make up a small proportion of adherents to any tradition. What has been important to a far larger group of Buddhist adherents has been practice. Again, the analogy with our current situation provides an argument by analogy for this view—the large proportion of, for example, mindfulness practitioners would seem to be only concerned with understanding that the practice is effective, that it will meet their needs. For the most part, reassurances that there is scientific evidence of its efficacy seem sufficient. This modern use of “science” displaces, but serves the same function of legitimation that traditional miracle tales served. There is an additional complication for Buddhist studies, however.

Many scholars working in Buddhist studies seem to implicitly identify textual studies (philology) with doctrinal studies. However, the issue that I am attempting to highlight here is not texts versus practice, but rather the primacy given to doctrine over practice. Textual studies apply to both subject matters, both questions about doctrine and questions about practice. Historically, however, the selection of texts to be studied appears to have been directed by an implicit assumption that doctrinal texts are the important ones, or alternatively, that the doctrinal content rather than, for example, the ritual use of texts is what is important.

As has been well documented by several scholars, this understanding of the project of Buddhist studies can be traced back to its origins in Euro-America in the mid- to late-19th century, when Buddhist studies was modeled on the new and then-exciting field of Biblical studies. The value seen in the study of Biblical texts was exactly doctrinal, however, and this has led to a covert selectivity of doctrinal texts or doctrinal contents of texts as defining the study of Buddhism. And while texts of that kind may be of interest to us as modern intellectuals, our interests do not define the historical realities of Buddhism. And, while our interests—whether philosophy, psychology, or neurosciences, for example—have their own kind of validity, we need to recognize that serving those interests by appropriating from Buddhism is a project separate from the study of Buddhism. For example, the economics of Buddhism is different from a Buddhist economics.

Just as tools for the study of doctrine—what I have alliteratively identified as concepts, categories and concerns—have been developed, so also do we need tools for the study of practices. However, just as the tools for the study of doctrine deriving from the Western intellectual tradition are problematic for the study of Buddhist thought, the tools for the study of practices developed in Western intellectual history need to be held as potentially problematic as well.

Instead, for example, such emic categories as those by which tantric rituals are organized provide one way of approaching practices in a Buddhist context. And tools such as syntactic analyses that are abstract enough to apply to any form of practice can be of use in thinking through the nature of practices as systematically organized activities.

This is not to say that the intellectual frameworks developed by Buddhist thinkers over two and a half millenia are not important—far from it. However, exclusive attention to doctrine without a comparable attention to practice distorts our perception of the tradition. The broader concern that I think needs to be the unifying theme of Buddhist studies is praxis, that is, the creative interaction between doctrine and practice. Understanding Buddhism—not as some abstract, ahistorical system, but rather as a living, historical continuity—requires that we understand both doctrine and practice exactly in their relation to one another, instead of in isolation from one another.

Statement from the Spirit Rock Teachers Council—on the separation of children from their families

The following statement is reposted with permission from Ruth King’s Wise Talk Blog, thank you.

As Buddhist meditation leaders, teachers and practitioners, we are concerned with the welfare and safety of everyone in our society. These commitments are based upon an understanding of our shared vulnerability in this life. Separating migrant children from their families unambiguously harms children and their families – this harm is immediate and severe and endures across generations through the lingering effects of trauma. Under no circumstances can we as contemplative practitioners, spiritual leaders, or moral human beings imagine circumstances in which it is acceptable to engage in acts that harm children. We cannot forget that we belong to each other. We feel deeply the heartbreak of families being torn apart.

We, as teachers for Spirit Rock Meditation Center and for tens of thousands of Buddhist practitioners around the country, reaffirm the Spirit Rock Statement of Values and stand with many other secular and religious organizations – organizations spanning the political and theological spectrum – in condemning these acts. These acts represent a dramatic deviation from the standards of morality and basic human decency that form the fabric of civilized society. Unraveling that fabric has a corrosive effect on our capacity to live and thrive together.

The Executive Order issued June 20th represents a hopeful signal, but we must remain engaged to ensure that this policy change is implemented and family reunifications are expedited. We encourage you to contact your representatives to voice your concern, to connect with organized efforts to express your values, and to support reputable advocacy organizations.

We must also pause to consider how this depth of moral confusion was enacted and tolerated and take steps to nurture the values that make such depravity unthinkable.


Sally Armstrong

James Baraz

Matthew Brensilver

Eugene Cash

Howard Cohn

Mark Coleman

Anne Cushman

Anna Douglas

Andrea Fella

Anushka Fernandopulle

Gil Fronsdal

JoAnna Hardy

Susie Harrington

Will Kabat-Zinn

Ruth King

Jack Kornfield

Brian Lesage

John Martin


Nikki Mirghafori

Phillip Moffitt


Kate Munding

Wes Nisker

Mary Grace Orr

Sharda Rogell

Donald Rothberg

Erin Selover

Gina Sharpe

Oren Jay Sofer

Tempel Smith

Heather Sundberg


Erin Treat
Diana Winston

Kate Lila Wheeler

Larry Yang


* Note: certain Teachers Council members are on retreat and may not have had the opportunity to sign this statement as of yet. 


A country is only as strong as the people who make it up, and the country turns into what people want it to become. We made the world we’re living in, and we have to make it over. ~ James Baldwin