What is Pragmatic Dharma?

The wayI’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 AmericaThis 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.




Posted on November 3, 2015, in buddhism, Dharma, Enlightenment, Kenneth Folk, Meditation, Mindfulness, psychology, Uncategorized, vipassana and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. It seems to me that Joko Beck’s form of teaching was oriented to the Western working world……”Everyday Zen” and “Nothing Special”… her advice: “put down the books and just sit.”

  2. There are a lot of interesting points in this debate between Insight Meditation Society teachers and the upstart, pragmatic dharma types.

    I am hopeful that the general discussion of enlightenment is much more informed in say, 10 or 15 years from now. what if fMRI or brain sensing technologies (like a Muse headband but in the near future) could do some really specific guiding and testing of what people call enlightenment? i.e. testing that would be helpful to a practitioner more directly.

    I believe that eventually, the discussion of enlightenment will be seen as a more scientific matter. an issue of brain functions changing over time. hopefully some of these doctrinal arguments then begin to lose steam, and some of these arguments about doctrine and authenticity lose relevance.

    • Re the technical-ization of meditation — don’t hold your breath (pun acknowledged).

      The neuroscience of meditation was recently described by a prominent researcher as “trivial” at this point, not having even begun to unravel the relationship between the brain and meditation.

      And the whole “cognitive neuroscience” enterprise, of which “contemplative neuroscience” is a tiny sliver, is starting to look massively overhyped and oversold. The 2014 Nobelist described it as pre-Newtonian. For example, there is widespread disappointment among scientists over the ongoing failure to find any actionable “biomarkers” of psychiatric disorders, though the popular press hasn’t really picked up on it yet (it would destroy the so-far hyped narrative).

      And if you can’t even detect or classify, say, depression with neuroscience, what is the prospect for doing likewise for meditation, much less guide it? That said, there is some hope for trans-cranial electrical stimulation, but that is pure serendipity — we have almost no idea how or why it works.

  3. This is a great article, Ron. I was also unsure of what Jack’s beef was with pragmatic dharma. I agree that there is something very vibrant and alive about the Bill Hamilton movement (a term I just coined!).

  4. Thanks Ron. I listened to Jack’s talk with an open mind, and I found it helpful to my practice. You once wrote about having pizza in Siberia. It wasn’t pizza as you knew it.

    I sort of take Jack’s comments to suggest his view that the pragmatic dharma movement might be serving up Siberian pizza, which isn’t “real” pizza. But that doesn’t mean that Siberian pizza can’t taste good to the novice-by-monk-standards meditating layperson like myself. Personally, I’ve found whatever this pizza is to be delightful.

    Maybe someday I’ll get to enjoy Jack’s pizza, whatever that might be like. Either way is fine. Ultimately, it’s not about the type of pizza you eat, it’s just enjoying the eating. At least, that’s what my Siberian-pizza-based practice is telling me.

    • I just re-read your post about pizza in Siberia, and I apologize for the confused metaphor that reference suggests; I wouldn’t want to preclude the possibility that Jack’s pizza is just of a different flavor/type!

  5. When you say “traditional buddhism”, what are you referring to? There are quite a lot of different types of Buddhism across many countries, so do you have a particular one in mind? Do they all stress things like stream entry stages of insight?

    I guess you might mean some forms of Burmese and Thai Buddhism though. Are you aware of the extent to which these “traditional” forms were influenced by the west? e.g. https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/theravada-reinvents-meditation/

    Other than using the word “brain” in marketing materials, have you any examples of pragmatic dharma teaching, such as Kenneth Folk’s approach, being influenced by scientific principles or knowledge?

    If your goal is to use meditation to become a little less stressed in a busy life, and meditating for 10 minutes once a day helps you, in what way is this not pragmatic?

    In regard to “attainments”, do you think the idea that there are 16 stages of enlightenment, or “nanas”, or the idea that there 4 “pureland jhanas” is scientifically grounded or woo-woo?

    Is your belief in the stages of insight, attainments, and ideas about awakening influenced by dogma and doctrine in any way? Are the maps used in pragmatic dharma outside of any tradition? I mean, are you are sure there aren’t really 5 pure land jhanas? Or perhaps 9 stages of insight?

  6. They are mostly rhetorical questions Ron.

    So the key things: you mention – pragmatism, transparency, a digital community, secularism, and focusing on awakening in ordinary life

    “focusing on awakening in ordinary life” – well, this is a way of saying it isn’t a monastic tradition. And westernised buddhism isn’t monastic so its not a great differentiator. And pragmatic dharma does have a focus on retreats – so its not really that accurate, especially since a focus is on creating non-ordinary experiences divorced from “real life” (compare with say, Joko Beck’s “everyday zen” mentioned above).

    “transparency” – this works as a principle, though one could argue that it could invites people to see fairy tales as real…

    Pragmatic dharma is “secular”, up to a point – so this statement “Kenneth Folk is openly secular in his approach, eschewing the religious tradition and dogma for a more scientific and modern view of meditation” doesn’t quite work – given that part of Folk’s teaching is based on religious tradition and dogma (i.e. the stages of insight).

    “a digital community” is about right.

    “pragmatic” – I think this is a problematic term – some pointers as to why in my questions above. I think a better characterisation might be “goal orientated” – where there are some clear and explicit ideas about what the right goals are and the methods to achieve them.

    Chapman’s blog is great – lots to read there – particularly if you are interested in the recent history of Buddhism and its potential future shape in the west.

    If you are interested in another take on defining pragmatic (or, really, hardcore) dharma this has a nice take:

  7. Thanks for posting this Ron. I also listened to that episode and was confused about the claim that people will have a less transformative experiences outside of traditional monastic life. It sounds like they are saying that basically meditators are having the Walmart version of enlightenment.

    When I first started meditating I had a unexpected experience during a sit to which I searched endlessly online for an answer and found nothing. The Buddhists forums were of no help saying that my experience was nothing and that goals such as Stream Entry , Path or enlightenment where basically near impossible to reach, maybe even a fable. Maybe next lifetime right? Hearing this completely destroyed my motivation to practice. After all who wants to spend their life meditating it away without gaining true insights.

    I’m very thankful to have stumbled across the pragmatic movement by chance. I have learned more from the pragmatic movement in 30 minutes then I ever did in almost 2 years of Buddhists temples and dharma talks.

  8. Just listened to the talk. That felt like one of Vince’s more challenging interviews, at least at the beginning before they both settled into it.

    It left me with a bad taste in my mouth, mostly because it challenges the beliefs that I have that a householder can attain high levels of awakening.

    Jack was essentially saying that even if you technically walk the path of insight as a lay person in the modern world and experience the side effects, it’s not really the same as the depth you would experience by doing the same progress of insight in a monastic sense with months and years of uninterrupted practice.

    He’s really saying that there is a Z axis of depth that isn’t being factored in here. Sure Daniel Ingram may technically be an Arhat but it’s not the same as the ideal of a Saint like figure that the Thai forest practitioners see it as.

    That makes sense to me.

    Ron, what are your thoughts on depths of awakening between these two extremes cases of contemplative practice.

    • It reminds me of the ongoing debate about jhana. On one hand some people are saying jhana isn’t really jhana unless you are so absorbed you cannot feel your body, and that level of absorption usually requires many months of silent retreat with a master of jhana coaching you along the way. On the other hand many people are teaching that jhana is still jhana even if you can feel your body and hear sounds, and that jhana is jhana at various depths. One can access jhana and then deepen it. There is something similar at work here. I can’t say that I really know which version is the “true” version, or if that even makes any sense, but I can say that those who access jhanas through the milder approach (the Ayya Khema/Leigh Braisington approach) feel wonderful and changed by the experience. The same thing happens with insight and awakening. People who experience it in lay life feel like they have encountered something profound and life-changing. In my experience it does transform people, and the transformation doesn’t seem to end, it gets deeper over time. Just like light jhana.

  9. I would like to listen to Jack Kornfield’s comments and would like to know where to access it.

  10. Every time I read texts and comments such as these by Ron, I become extremely happy. Keep up the good work pragmatic dharma-folks!

  11. If one thinks of being at an orchestral concert and the members are all tuning up before starting the concert — it all sounds rather discordant and chaotic. Eventually they all become silent, and then the concert program starts. Buddhism in the West right now seems to me to be at that “tuning” stage, hence the apparent cacophony of voices.

  12. The pizza metaphor definitely has relevance here, as Chad points out above. As I recall the podcast, Jack Kornfield essentially says that arahants don’t exist, except as a mental ideal. Anybody who claims to be one is therefore delivering fake pizza, by definition. Obviously it’s an unfalsifiable claim and anyone can always say “it’s a fake pizza”, particularly if no real pizza exists as a point of reference!

    But then, I recall that the pizza metaphor originated in Ron’s post about the entheogenic movement and its analogously controversial claims around substance-induced enlightenment. It’s really the same problem of “authenticity” but in a different guise, no?

    Really, if we’re serious about being pragmatic Buddhists I think we need to move away from all claims of fake versus real. They are truth-claims not usefulness-claims and therefore not really part of a pragmatic outlook.

  13. For me, an example of a more pragmatically workable claim would be Kenneth Folk’s “I’m enlightened because I don’t believe my thoughts” (which used to be on the front of this website). Even though this claim refers to private events and there’s no way to prove that it refers to the Buddha’s enlightenment there is at least the beginnings of some basis for skeptical inquiry.

  14. Good post

    However I don’t think you can compare Kornfields knowledge and experience of Monasticism with that of Ingram and Kenneth Folk. As I understand it Ingram and Folk spent time on long term retreats in Asian retreat centres/monasteries wheras Kornfield was a Thai Forest Bhikkhu and practised in Burma, Thailand as a monastic across a wide range of different styles.

    Also I think Ingram and Folk do not claim to be Arahants as is defined by Theravadan Buddhism – but their own definition of Arahant.

    This possibly explains the difference of opinion.

    In my opinion the important difference in practise between western laymen and western meditation monastics isn’t really anything about religion or ‘woo woo’ mystical stuff –
    it is just that the monastic can practise without having to be concerned with a lot of things that a laymen does such as money, he lives in an environment conducive to practise and sense restraint and also is surrounded by others who are leading the same lifestyle

  15. thanks. great article

  16. One thing I have found helpful about Pragmatic Dharma, that is not mentioned here but seems to me an important feature of it, is the emphasis on one-on-one coaching with a teacher. That is so much more effective than the retreat context in which you listen to talks given to a mass (not individualized) with a few 15-minutes interviews throughout the retreat. And in between retreats (which can be a long time for most)no contact with the teacher. Not to say such retreats shouldn’t have a place in practice: they do have an important place.

    Mogok Sayadaw, a monk who was widely reputed to be an Arahant in Burma in the 20th century (but not well-know outside of Burma) once said that if one is serious about meditation, one should seek a teacher who is at least a stream-winner. I used to think: But if no one reveals their level of practice, how can I find such teacher?? With the transparency in pragmatic dharma, this is not a problem, for which I am thankful.

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