What is Pragmatic Dharma?
This is an article by Ron Crouch.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what “pragmatic dharma” is lately. This is partly because I’m trying to get my own head straight as I write about it, and partly because Jack Kornfield recently criticized it on Buddhist Geeks. Kornfield, in his usual gentle style, was mostly circumspect in his criticism, but he did say that the leaders of the pragmatic dharma movement (I’m assuming he means Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram) have redefined key concepts in Buddhism. He suggested that the attainments aimed for in pragmatic dharma are, in essence, not the real thing. Coming from the author of A Path with Heart, one of the most easy-going, downright cuddly dharma books out there (while also covering some deep wisdom), such direct criticism is pretty harsh stuff. He also pointed out that the idea that people could attain enlightenment in lay life, a key idea in pragmatic circles, is something that does not make a lot of sense to him and that the experiences and insights a person has in lay life are not the same, not as “transformative,” as what occurs in a more rigorous monastic setting like the Mahasi centers in Burma. He seemed to imply that he understood what goes on in those places while Kenneth and Daniel do not, and so they are redefining things out of misunderstanding. This is odd, because both Kenneth and Daniel spent significant stretches of time in the Asian centers Kornfield is referring to, in the exact same lineage as him, so something isn’t quite making sense. It really seems like a he said/she said sort of situation. I disagree with him here, so hope I didn’t just distort his point of view too much.
Given that Kenneth Folk was my teacher and I benefited immeasurably from the pragmatic approach he used, I was a bit taken aback by Kornfield’s critique. I love his work, and generally think he knows what he is talking about in such matters, so I wondered if there was a misunderstanding or clash of personalities at work rather than a substantial critique. I mean, does he really understand what pragmatic dharma is? Does anyone? What is it really? As I thought about this I came up with a handful of characteristics that I think give pragmatic dharma its shape at present.
Pragmatism – this one is so important it is right in the name. I think that it is the defining characteristic because it stands in contrast to the way the dharma is being taught in mainstream Buddhism in the west. The mainstream has key elements of the Buddhist practice, but it often seems to be more a kind of lifestyle, identity, or a spiritualized form of psychotherapy, rather than a focus on awakening itself or the working elements of practice. It strongly emphasizes uncoupling meditation from attainments, as a sort of de-stressing strategy for a harried western world. This is a very different version of Buddhism from the traditional approach, which strongly emphasizes attaining specific outcomes, like insight knowledges or stream entry, which are viewed as imminently practical. In the westernized version of Buddhism these practical attainments, and even awakening itself, seem to go out of focus and become a kind of aspirational concept rather than a reality. Kornfield actually said as much in his Buddhist Geeks interview, and what is interesting about this from a historical perspective is that he had a very important role to play in this transformation of Buddhism in the west, which is documented in the book Mindful America. This new style of dharma, unique to the west, was dubbed the “mushroom culture” by Bill Hamilton (the teacher of both Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, and founder of the Dharma Seed audio library who reportedly explained that this new western approach is like growing mushrooms, you “keep them in the dark and feed them shit.” Pragmatic dharma is a reaction against this new westernized style. It is a move to focus on what matters in the dharma – awakening and what leads to it – rather than the things that seem to be more lifestyle or therapy oriented. It is ironic that Kornfield critiques pragmatic dharma as redefining Buddhism away from the traditional meanings, because that is exactly the critique pragmatic dharma folks are making of mainstream Buddhism in the west.
Transparency – pragmatic dharma is big on breaking the taboo on talking about attainments. It means coming right out and saying so if you attained a jhana, had a cessation, or know what an insight is like because you had it first hand. The upside of this is that it invites people to see these things as real rather than fairy tales (which the mushroom culture seems to encourage). It also eliminates the weird game of spiritual marco polo that sometimes gets played when people talk around their own attainments rather than about them. The downside is that it provides an opening for people who simply want to make things up. If it becomes chic to say you attained jhana then no doubt people are going to start redefining jhana to match whatever they experience in meditation, that’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. So on this I can see the validity of the criticism. But does that mean we really need a taboo that leads people to not take these things seriously? Perhaps there can be a middle ground here. I can imagine a situation in which people are encouraged to be open about their attainments within select company. There are plenty of aspects of our lives that we keep private except with a close group, perhaps attainments can start to fall into a similar category. Not quite public, not quite taboo, but something we are open about with those who are going to understand and not overreact.
Digital – pragmatic dharma is a sangha in the cloud. There are communities, but they are mostly online communities. Message boards, forums, blogs, podcasts, and other online mediums are the spaces where ideas pop up and are explored. The Hamilton Project has a great list of pragmatic dharma sites. Buddhist Geeks has an online training program that looks fantastic, and pragmatically minded lay teachers (like myself) often teach people meditation online, via skype or other forms of live online interaction. Small groups meet in person in cities all over the world, but for the most part it is an online phenomenon. This gives it an interesting radical quality. There is something rebellious in spirit about pragmatic dharma that is found in many web-based movements. It is untethered to institutions and traditional hierarchies, and in this sense it is the dharma equivalent of Bitcoin or Wikipedia. A decentralized, crowdsourced fund of emerging wisdom and experimentation, that is unpredictable and destabilizing to established approaches. Some of the ideas that come out of it are destined to fail, like so many internet phenomena, but some are very good and deserve to be taken seriously. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of experimentation.
Secularism – not everyone who is interested in pragmatic dharma is secular, but so many are it is difficult not to see a trend. Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation as “brain training” or “contemplative fitness.” As he said in a 2013 article for Wired Magazine “All that woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde.” This trend in pragmatic dharma makes sense because secularism is in essence a scientific perspective, and the scientific perspective is almost pragmatic by definition. From a scientific perspective things only cross the threshold from woo-woo to reality when they’ve been shown to actually work in some fundamental way. This is a version of what pragmatic dharma is doing by focusing on attainments. The moment one takes attainments seriously then one has a sensible way to gauge whether things actually work or not. The threshold is the attainment. And the test of whether something works is whether it leads one closer to the attainment or is merely, to use Kenneth’s phrase, woo-woo. A secular focus means that those aspects of practice that actually work to produce insight and awakening take primary importance, while dogma, doctrine, and cultural additions tend to fall away. This leads to pragmatic dharma’s focus on techniques, maps, or even practices outside of any tradition, while downplaying mainstream Buddhism’s lifestyle-oriented focus.
A focus on ordinary life – most people involved in pragmatic dharma fall into the category of lay practitioners, but what makes them different from lay sangha in the past is that they are not (for the most part) focused on building merit by serving a monastic community in the hope of awakening in future life. They are focused on awakening in this life. This is an idea taken whole from the vipassana revival in Asia that led to the mindfulness movement in the west (see The Birth of Insight for a history of this movement in Burma). Ledi Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka, and others spread the idea that lay people could practice Satipatthana meditation and learn Abhidhamma well enough to move along the path while also participating in ordinary life. As a result of this movement great lay teachers such as Anagarika Munindra and Dipa Ma, who were major influences on the western mindfulness movement, were able to teach and spread the idea that awakening is possible in lay life. As the vipassana movement landed in the west it brought this idea with it, and the idea that one could practice meditation and study Buddhism in lay life flourished. Yet the idea that awakening is possible in lay life is deemphasized as attainments take a back seat to a focus on de-stressing and coping with lay life effectively. Pragmatic dharma takes the idea that awakening is possible in ordinary life literally and seriously.
These five characteristics, pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life, are what gives pragmatic dharma its current shape. But there is something else that is worth understanding about them. They are occurring within a much larger picture that, I think, defines the disagreement that leads someone like Kornfield to criticize this upstart movement, and that is the presence of what I have come to call the “silent sangha.” Right now there is a vast group of people in the west who meditate regularly, practice mindfulness at the office, or are going through mindfulness based stress reduction courses on their doctor’s advice, who are gradually getting deeper and deeper into the world of meditation. They love meditation, but they really do not care much about Buddhism. There is a disconnect between them and a fuller understanding of meditation, beyond mindfulness, and in the coming decades the challenge for Buddhism will be to package and deliver the deeper teachings to them in a way they can understand and which will help them take the next step toward awakening. The silent sangha is a massive and paradigm-shaping group. More than any teacher, more than any blog, magazine, book or traditional institution, it is they who will shape what the dharma is going to look like in the west. What will Buddhism look like in the west when they start to take awakening seriously? If you think this is not a possibility, I’d urge you to read 10% Happier by Dan Harris and get an inside look at his transformation from skeptic, to mindfulness fan, to someone who tentatively wonders if awakening is possible in this life. I think there are millions of people just like Harris, and their minds are gradually opening to this possibility.
It is in this context that a new approach to Buddhism, a truly western approach friendly to the western worldview, is going to emerge. Will it focus on attainments and awakening in this life? Or will it remain lifestyle and therapy oriented? Will it find a way to combine the two? What will western Buddhism become once the silent sangha collectively decides to go deeper? These are the big questions that are the backdrop for the disagreement that Kornfield is having with pragmatic dharma, and that pragmatic dharma is having with mainstream Buddhism. It isn’t really about what Buddhism from Asia is, or whether particular claims about attainments are true or not, it is really about what western Buddhism is going to become. In this context these disagreements seem healthy and vital rather than divisive or harsh. They are a sign that bigger trends are on the move and growth is occurring.
I’m curious to see where it all goes.
This article originally appeared in Ron Crouch’s website, alohadharma.com, which is not active anymore.
This link will navigate you to a collection of Ron Crouch’s texts, originally published on alohadharma.com