Consensus Buddhism is a term invented by David Chapman. To me it seems to be another name for what Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls Buddhist Romanticism. Here are some characteristics of the supposed consensus, according to Chapman:

consensus Western Buddhism is—supposedly—egalitarian, democratic, anti-hierarchy, ecumenical, accepts all religious traditions (except of course Bad forms of Buddhism), respects and sometimes incorporates psychotherapy, is ecologically aware, talks about social justice, promotes internal and external peace, etc.


Western Buddhism kept some traditional Buddhist mythology (in the same way liberal Christianity keeps some traditional mythology), but you aren’t expected to believe in it. It’s a bunch of “teaching stories,” not Truth.

Consensus Buddhists mostly don’t believe in Buddhas, either. The important thing is not enlightenment, but a morality of good intentions, harmonious behavior, and inoffensiveness.


The main practice of Consensus Buddhism is vipassana. This method is meant to shatter the self and break connections. Western Buddhists mostly want and expect the opposite results.

When describing "Consensus Buddhism", Chapman writes a lot about "hegemony", "monopoly" that "Consensus Buddhists" want to achieve, as well as "suppressing other alternatives". And he writes that such an approach dominated Buddhism in the West for a long time and only recently that "consensus" is "starting to break down".

Despite having contact with various Buddhist groups in the last years, I hardly came across anyone who fits with the description of Consensus Buddhism, so I have the following questions:

  1. In your experience, does/did mainstream Buddhism in the West really match the definition of Consensus Buddhism?
  2. In your experience, what was the period when it dominated the mainstream Western Buddhism (in terms of printed media, number of followers, etc.)?
  3. In your experience, does/did it really try to supress its alternatives?
  4. If the answer to the first question is "yes", was the phenomenon of "Consensus Buddhism" restricted to any particular country or part of the world? (I have a feeling that there may be big differences in this regard between, say, North America, Europe and Oceania.)
  5. What are the names of the "Consensus Buddhist" groups you know about?
  • I'd be glad to hear why the question gets downvoted, so that I could improve it.
    – michau
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 21:03
  • I actually just voted up because of it's content and subject, but I'd suggest avoid formulating questions as "in your experience"; Try pressing for getting facts instead of personal impressions.
    – user382
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 20:35
  • You may want to discuss that with @AndreiVolkov, I added "in your experience" at his request.
    – michau
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 22:54
  • @ThiagoSilva: what do you mean facts about "Consensus" Buddhism that are not personal experiences? Can you give some examples?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 23:15
  • For a second it just sounded to me as "in your opinion...". But i might just be nitpicking to ask these parts removed and just have the questions blunt (ie. "Is it?" Instead of "in your experience, is it?")
    – user382
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 0:32

3 Answers 3


Chapman has drawn a circle around his own practice of Aro g'Ter, which he describes as "neither traditional nor modern" but as "terma." Everything outside that circle is "Consensus Buddhism" or infected by it. He also likes Shambhala, which he practised before the Aro sect. I live in Halifax, which is the International headquarters of Shambhala. The dominant form here is Vajra-Tantra; it totally dominates Buddhism in Atlantic Canada in numbers, wealth, teaching and practice. But I don't call it a "consensus"; I don't practice it and it has no affect on what I choose to practice.

Chapman's thesis on Consensus Buddhism approaches conspiracy theory. He purports that there is this loosely coalesced conspiracy, led by the Dalai Lama, Jack Kornfield, and other published teachers, to make us all practice the same thing ("One Dharma"), which deliberately excludes tantric practice from that consensus, thus suppressing the practice of tantra. He offers no evidence to explain how this Consensus Buddhism dominates US practice, or that it deliberately suppresses tantric practice--not even anecdotal evidence. It's a conspiracy theory which he proffers as a way to defend his own views.


Chapman, and anyone who wants to talk about Buddhism in the west, has a challenge in that there are way more Buddhist sympathizers and dabblers and serious dabblers than people who are members of an organized group with an official orthodoxy or othopraxy. So some options are either to dismiss western Buddhists altogether, since they never ordained nor got the three refuges from a monk or send in a membership dues check every year. Or we can invent an abstraction to discuss this heterogenous mass of people.

From my own experiences organizing a Buddhist book club, I get a really heterogeneous set of attendees, maybe 75% "new age" enthusiasts and 25% fall into some category of Buddhist using Jan Nattiers taxonomy (import Buddhism, export Buddhism, "baggage" Buddhism, etc).

In Jan Nattier's taxonomy, Chapman is talking about the import Buddhists, i.e. those who read about Buddhism at a library, got excited, went to Japan, brought back the elements that spoke to them. As a result you get a sort of DT Suzuki Buddhism heavily influenced by lines of thought going on in the west.

When Chapman describes the decline of Consensus Buddhism & "suppression of alternatives", I can only guess what he's getting at, but I'll take a stab. In my personal experience, I started with Zen and Meditation. I've since read a lot about Buddhism and moved on- I'm now more focused on Huayen and Mahayana. I've come to peace with the Bodhisattvas and am enthusiastic about the idea of the Bodhisattva path-- I would not have been enthusiastic about these ideas when I started. When I started, I liked Buddhism because it wasn't a devotional, Christian-God centric religion & the Bodhisattvas sounded like a rehash of the man in the sky with a beard. Instead, I see them as vividly imagined role models. AFAIK, nothing in the age of enlightenment thinking has anything good to say about vividly imagined role models, so if I didn't expand my mind to allow for an alien thought like Bodhisattvas, then I would have been missing out on a big part of Mahayana. The enlightenment in the west was all about fighting the Christian Church and it's repression on intellectual thought, so, uh, God help the Pure Land preachers in the US, because they are going to be closed minded about the part that sounds just like Christianity.

AFAIK, there are no organized western Buddhist groups that have all features of Consensus Buddhism. Insight Meditation, Shambhala, SGI, Triratna, Thích Nhất Hạnh's organization each have elements of consensus Buddhism, but each has elements of traditional Buddhism, too. Just by my intuition, I'd say that Chapman is not including in Consensus Buddhism the organizations in Asia, which are fully traditional becoming more western, as opposed to the unorganized group of Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers that are slowing incorporating more of what we used to call traditional Buddhism, albeit on our own terms. An example would be me incorporating some parts of Tibetan teachings, Shambahala especially, but I'm never going to be sold on the idea of guru veneration and I'm not going to ritually eat beef, at least not on the basis of someones say so. (Just an example, not an invitation to prove me wrong on that point :)


I agree with the previous poster, and would like to add the following:

Keep in mind too that Chapman has his own agenda - the advancement of something he calls "Modern Tantra", which does not really exist but is more of an ideal or goal he would like "Western Buddhism" (which is a problematic concept) to move toward. I'm not sure if Chapman ever clearly defines what Modern Tantra is (in part this is because he seems to be continually refining his idea of it), but he does seem to strongly define it as standing against certain understandings of Buddhism. One of these is what he calls Traditional Buddhism (and which I think Chapman caricatures and unfairly dismisses as irrelevant to American practitioners).

In light of this consideration, I would say that "Consensus Buddhism" represents those aspects of contemporary American Buddhist organizations that stand in the way of the development of Modern Tantra. It's an abstraction of a set of influences that one can see, in varying degrees, in actually existing Buddhist institutions and groups within the US.

Also, it seems that Chapman either lives or has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area region of California. Having lived there myself at one point, I can say that many of the Buddhist groups and institutions you find in this part of the world displays signs of the "Consensus Buddhism" he is talking about. So I think it is also a regional issue, to some degree. If you've never belonged to a Buddhist group in Berkeley, CA, you may not have encountered Consensus Buddhism before. It seems like most of the Buddhist institutions you encountered are more along the lines of what Chapman calls "Traditional Buddhism".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .