Modern Buddhism – A Thicket of Views


Prior to publishing this article I asked myself if it in fact falls within the framework of the Eightfold Path and is it Right Speech? These are the Buddha’s words on right speech that guide me: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” [1]

What follows is honest and I believe necessary. My intention is only to inform and not be divisive, although I know that may follow. The Buddha’s guidance on Right Speech and not being divisive is primarily meant for a well-focused sangha – a sangha that is guided by his teachings and the framework of the Eightfold Path. This is not a product of idle chatter nor is it abusive.

I know that many modern Buddhists choose to ignore the nearly infinite contradictions in customary Buddhism without question. Even more troubling are those that insist on ignoring the all too prevalent modern teachers who are incapable of practicing even a small measure of restraint and cause great confusion and harm.

It is clear to me that it is not completely skillful for me to simply present what I feel is a well focused and well authenticated Dhamma and ignore the obvious differences and contradictions between my presentation of the Buddha’s teachings and much of modern Buddhism. If I continued to ignore the obvious differences and contradictions between what the Buddha taught and what has developed since his passing I would then be contributing to further confusion.

Where appropriate I do explain these differences and contradictions in my articles, talks, and videos, but many questions continue to arise about authenticity and also about the many contradictions in modern Buddhism and the pervasive momentum pushing a one-size-fits-all reconciled Buddhism. It has become customary Buddhist Doctrine that all modern Dharma’s find a common unified “Buddhism.”

My only intention here is to provide clarity and perhaps direction to those confused with modern Buddhism and what the Buddha actually taught, and the dangers inherent in ignoring the Buddha’s direct teachings. John Haspel, March 5, 2017.

Many ask why I do not teach a more inclusive “dharma” or a practice that seeks to reconcile all of the modern Buddhist practices into a one-size-fits-all all-inclusive Dharma. I hope to answer this here. Furthermore, many online students, particularly those influenced by modern Buddhist teachings, and others who have found my book and websites coincidentally, have inquired as to my teaching and my methods. I always welcome direct questions. Some have been sincerely inquisitive seeking understanding and some quite angry and defensive seeking to protect a certain view. All are welcome.

What I have found through my own direct experience and inquiry is that the attempt to protect a particular modern lineage or to insist on a one-size-fits-all reconciliation of all the modern Buddhist “Dharmas” leads to a confusing and, again in my experience, an ineffective “thicket of views.” The term thicket of views are the words the Buddha used 2600 years ago to describe what would occur by craving for an adapted form of Dharma practice. [2]

Many today will also insist that the Buddha himself would adapt and accommodate his simple and direct teachings to be relevant to contemporary situations and modern intellectual sensibilities. What I have found is this is only another attempt at reconciling the Buddha’s teachings to fit individual conditioned thinking. When the Buddha’s teachings on Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are developed, the compulsion to adapt the direct teachings of the Buddha can clearly be seen as the essential problem of continued I-making rooted in ignorance of   Four Noble Truths. In other words, the need to adapt the Buddha’s direct teachings is rooted in ignorance of Four Noble Truths and can only continue ignorance.

When I first began writing and teaching the Buddha’s Dhamma I realized that the only way that I could be certain to not contribute to further ignorance was to write and teach only what can be found in the authentic record of the Buddha’s teaching as preserved in the Pali Canon. Of course an understanding of how the Pali Canon came to be an authentic preservation of the Buddha’s teaching is essential for anyone seeking to develop understanding from the Buddha’s direct teachings. An article that explains how the Pali Canon came to be an authentic record of the Buddha’s teachings and how that authenticity has been maintained over time is linked below. [3]

The Pali Canon is often a difficult read due to repetition and the translations from ancient Pali to useful English. A careful read of the Canon will clearly show the consistency of the teachings and how everything that the Buddha taught for the 45 years of his teaching career was taught in the context of his very first teaching of The Four Noble Truths.  [4]

My intention in presenting these teachings is to teach what I have practiced and benefitted from that can be found to be a direct teaching of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon. My intention is to avoid the confusion and distraction that has occurred from the cultural and charismatic individuals who have influenced modern Buddhism and the compulsion to reconcile the many contradictory forms of modern Buddhism into one modern Western one-size-fits-all unified “Buddhism.” All modern attempts at a reconciled modern Buddhism have diminished or dismissed what is most important – an understanding of confusion, delude thinking, and individual contributions to suffering through conditioned I-making.

I have practiced many of the modern forms of Mahayana Buddhism and taken formal vows in the Kagyu lineage. My experience resulted in ever increasing confusion and disappointment. For more information about my background and experience with modern Buddhism please see my biography linked below. [5]

There are many vows used for many different purposes in modern Buddhism. I think the only vow that is significant is the vow to be as authentic as possible to the Buddha’s direct teachings whether a student developing understanding or a teacher presenting these teachings. Whether a student or teacher, the only way that authenticity can be maintained is dependent on, and originates, in studying and practicing what the Buddha actually taught.

I will use the term “Customary Buddhism” to refer to the many modern forms of Buddhism that have all been influenced by charismatic individuals and the customs and cultures that have contributed to contemporary Buddhism around the world. I will use the word “Dharma” when referring to later-developed teachings and “Dhamma” when referring to the direct teachings of the Buddha.

I am not questioning the legitimacy of the many individual schools and lineages of modern Buddhism as established practices or religions, and I certainly do not mean to disparage any of them in a general sense. What I have found after more than 35 years of studying and practicing in many of the customary Buddhist schools is that most of the customary Buddhist religions have misinterpreted, misapplied, or outright ignored the Buddha’s direct teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon to fit individual or culturally influenced views.

What has developed in customary Buddhism has proved to be comforting for many who have found identification and belonging. Unfortunately, by adapting and accommodating, or dismissing outright the Buddha’s simple and direct teachings, much confusion and has arisen and occasionally very hurtful behavior from confused modern teachers has followed.

Two examples of this ignorance or misinterpretation are useful here. The Buddha awakened to Dependent Origination which clearly states that from ignorance through 12 observable causative links all manner of confusion, delusion, and suffering arises. Anyone who reads the Paticca-Samuppada-Vibhanga Sutta from the Pali Canon and is mindful of the context in which it is presented could not misinterpret this teaching to imply interdependence, interconnectedness, or inter-being. [6]

The ignorance that the Buddha is referring to is ignorance of Four Noble Truths which results directly in the formation of mental fabrications. Mental fabrications originate and are dependent on ignorance of Four Noble Truths. Another word for fabrications is assumptions and it can clearly be seen that from ignorance of The Four Noble Truths assumptions easily follow that justify adapting and accommodating the Buddhist teachings to fit individual and culturally influenced views.

Understanding Dependent Origination in the context of Four Noble Truths avoids confusing assumptions that lead to misunderstanding and misapplications of this essential teaching and clearly shows how all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering originates and is dependent on continuing ignorance of Four Noble Truths.

Another important sutta that has been consistently misinterpreted is the Kalama Sutta. In the Kalama Sutta is the sutta that is often cited as the sutta that the Buddha proclaims to question everything and ignore what does not fit one’s views. This is a perfect example of how ignorance used to interpret the Dhamma can only lead to something quite different than what the Buddha actually taught.

By insisting that the Buddha taught to question everything and if in that questioning it was found that the Dhamma should be changed or abandoned leads many to insist that it is actually skillful to do so.

This was something that used to gnaw at me. It was confusing to me that an awakened human being would spend more than half his life teaching something that he would then say should be questioned as to its integrity or application.

This is a good example of how ignorance continues ignorance. The subtle pressure that I felt from my associations with different schools and lineages that justified their contradictory teachings through just this same license certainly continued my ignorance.

Ongoing ignorance requires, is dependent on, ignoring anything that would reveal ignorance. I ignored my own misgivings due to the subtle pressure of friends and associates. What followed from my own ignorance attaching to these teachings and associations was more confusion, deluded thinking, and, as predicted by the Buddha, additional suffering.

Another adaptation of the “question everything” doctrine is that every teaching should be questioned in relation to one’s own conditioned thinking and intellectual proclivities and that an ultimate Dhamma should fit these confused views. Of course, this view is rooted in that same ignorance that is required for mental fabrications to arise in the first place.

The Buddha consistently presented The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as unique and distinct, not as a common teaching that could or should be integrated into other teachings according to the hardened beliefs of individuals. It is the insistence that the Buddha’s teachings can and should be accommodated to individual and cultural beliefs that have resulted in often confusing, contradictory, and ineffective “Dharmas” and a modern “thicket of views.”

The Buddha instructed the Kalama’s to not “go by other’s accounts, or by legends or traditions. Do not follow scriptures (later developed texts) or logical conjecture (conditioned thinking). Do not form conclusions through inference, analogies or common agreement (associations).” He taught that the only way to experience the effectiveness of his Dhamma was to develop his Dhamma as he taught his Dhamma.

His admonition here to “question everything” must also be seen in the context in which he made this statement. Often gleefully and compulsively taken by many today as license to practice anything and everything and call it “Buddhist practice,” taken in context it is clear that the Buddha is telling the Kalama’s to question other teachings in the context of what he teaches and to then decide for individually if the teachings are consistent with his Dhamma, and prove effective. He also provides very skillful guidance how to precisely determine what his Dhamma is based on – by following The Eightfold Path and experiencing directly the results. [7]

Another way that many have adapted his admonition to infer to ”question everything” was in reference to him telling students that “when uncertain, confused, or doubtful to question me directly.” Many modern Buddhists will conveniently leave out the part where the Buddha directs others to question him directly. It should be obvious that there could be no useful answer by asking someone who has not studied or developed his teachings and have become confused by their own insistence that the Dhamma should be adapted to fit confused views.

The Buddha encouraged others to question his teachings directly to him so that he could provide an answer in the proper context, not to engage in endless debate or to convince someone of his Dhamma. The Buddha’s response was only to provide guidance within the proper context of what he actually taught.

Of course, since the Buddha’s passing, we can no longer question the Buddha directly but we can look to the only written record of his teachings still existing today, or question a teacher that has actually studied his teachings as preserved in the Pali Canon.

Simple logic would show that in order to teach any subject you would have to actually study the subject. The modern notion of “sacred lineages” conveniently provides authenticity where no true authenticity to the Buddha’s direct teachings exists. The true lineage of the Dhamma was established by the Buddha and continues through his teachings. The lineage of the Buddha’s teachings obviously cannot be established through adapted and accommodated teachings that often contradict or dismiss the Buddha’s teachings outright. The many contradictory interpretations of Dependent Origination show this most clearly.

It was not until I developed an understanding of Dependent Origination was I able to clearly see how ignorance was required to continue to ignore the obvious failings present in these different schools.

The usefulness of an authentic Dhamma is what the Buddha taught in the Ratana Sutta. This sutta was presented to an entire town suffering the effects of famine and devastating floods. The Buddha first instructed the monks to attend to the physical needs of the townsfolk and then presented his teachings on taking refuge. The Buddha taught the importance of taking refuge in the Buddha as a human being who developed the profound understanding of the nature of individual contributions to suffering, and to take refuge in his teachings, The Dhamma. Finally the Buddha taught to take refuge in a Sangha that has actually taken refuge in his Dhamma.

Obviously creating a Dharma that seeks to reconcile all of the modern Buddhist schools into one confusing aggregation is not taking true refuge as taught in this simple sutta. [8]

My experience with modern Buddhism and direct experience with many teachers I have known have shown me the pitfalls of modern adapted and accommodated Buddhism. I have had teachers that had unresolved addiction issues and other issues related to unresolved compulsive desires. While I was associating with these teachers or traditions it became nearly impossible to separate what they were teaching from the individual views or tradition that allowed for behavior rooted in ignorance.

There are, unfortunately, numerous examples of deeply disturbed teachers lacking useful understanding of Dependent Origination or Four Noble Truths who preyed on their most vulnerable students – some still children, who presented teachings while intoxicated, who cheated on their spouses with their students, and many who have created great wealth contributed by their followers following their adapted and accommodated forms of Buddhism.

Many have gained great popularity and a large number of followers who continue to excuse their behavior due to their “profound understanding” and their identification and association with these hurtful teachers and their “lineages.”

This is understandable when seen in the light of how the Buddha taught to be mindful of associations. In short, the Buddha cautioned to choose associations wisely as association is another word for clinging and what is clung to will determine experience. An understanding of clinging shows that what is clung to will create self-referential and self-indulgent views in order to continue ignorance and justify the association.

This does not mean that every follower of a disturbed and deluded teacher will act in predatory or otherwise hurtful behavior, most do not, but some do follow the teacher’s behavior. What often follows is continued ignorance of the teacher’s behavior and a lack of recognition of their flawed teachings. This can nearly always be traced back to the need to adapt and accommodate the Buddha’s original teachings and the compulsive desire to reconcile the Buddha’s teachings into one modern Buddhist practice.

Not all sangha’s that were victimized by deluded teachers remain quiet indefinitely but many of those with the courage to bring these teachers to responsibility continue to struggle with the trauma and continue aversion to Buddhist teachings. This is profoundly sad and shows that ongoing suffering is dependent on ongoing ignorance.

Simply put, it is often the case when all of the contradictory modern forms of Buddhism are reconciled what is almost universally discarded, or diminished in importance, are the Buddha’s direct teachings.

Even the teachings on taking refuge, known as the Triple Refuge, must be ignored in order to engage in any behavior that would prove to be hurtful towards others.

Would anyone have followed the Buddha during his day if he presented his teachings under the influence of alcohol or drugs or while compulsively smoking one cigarette after another or while sleeping with other’s wives or husbands or with young boys or girls?

This is not meant to be an indictment of all modern customary Buddhism or to infer that all modern Buddhist schools engage in hurtful behavior, most don’t, but unfortunately, there are many that do. This is to point out what follows from the modern Buddhist practice of compulsively adapting or accommodating the Buddha’s direct teachings to fit modern confused views.

The many modern customary forms of Buddhism seem benign and useful but what occurs during the reconciliation process is a picking and choosing of what fits the view of whoever is doing the picking and choosing. If this view is rooted in ignorance or wrong view, which it often is unless the Buddha’s direct teachings were actually studied and developed, is a modern customary Buddhist practice that often only reinforces this wrong view.

There are many examples of this playing out through the many Buddhist scandals that have come to light over the past 75 years. I will not cite these directly as this would prove divisive. Those that have been victimized know this all too well. Most Buddhist practitioners are aware of these problems but quickly dismiss them as isolated incidents. They are not.

Most modern adapted forms of Buddhism insist that their form of Buddhism is what the Buddha taught or insist that the Buddha taught the many contradictory forms all having the same goal. Of course this can’t be true and results in great confusion. Right Speech would imply that honesty would influence what has shaped the resulting “dharma” rather than desire.

One modern Buddhist religion – Won Buddhism – is clear that they practice a reformed Buddhism. If all modern forms of Buddhism would state this simple truth than their followers would know that the Buddha taught something different and avoid the confusion and contradictory “dharmas” that have developed since the Buddha’s passing.

One of the difficulties that often occurs when refining Buddhist practice to focus only on what the Buddha taught is the feeling that one is isolating themselves from friends and associates. This is certainly true from practitioners deeply entangled in one or another modern Buddhist school. It was difficult for me to acknowledge that the many wonderful friends and associates that I had made, and the fondness that I had developed for many teachers, had to be let go of in order for me to remain authentic to what was most important – integrity with the Buddha’s direct teachings.

This has resulted in dear friends and significant associates who now no longer choose to associate with me and also has resulted in some students to conclude that what I am teaching is not something that they are interested in. I say this only to show that there are indeed challenges and consequences in remaining focused on what the Buddha actually taught. It is ultimately a matter of maintaining integrity with the Buddha’s teachings. Association can often tacitly affirm and confirm a teacher and their “Dharma” that is lacking in integrity.

The question of what “Dharma” to practice is a difficult one for many. The answer is found in the Buddha’s teachings themselves, again from the Kalama Sutta:  “When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.

“What do your think, Kalamas – when the three defilements of greed, aversion and deluded thinking arise in a person do they arise for benefit or for harm?”

“The defilements always bring harm.”

“And when a person is driven by the defilements, their mind possessed, they kill other beings, they take what is not given, they take another’s spouse, they lie and induce other’s to lie, all of which create long-term harm and suffering for themselves and others.

“What do you think, Kalamas – are these defilements skillful or unskillful, shameful or shameless, criticized or praised by the wise?”

“The defilements are unskillful, shameful, and criticized by the wise.”

“When the defilements are acted upon do they lead to long-term suffering for one’s self and others, or not?”

“They always lead to long term suffering for one’s self and others.”

“So as I said ‘Do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are unskillful, shameful, confusing, and distracting these teachings should be abandoned. When these teachings are criticized by the wise they should be abandoned. When these teachings lead to harm and suffering they should be abandoned.’

“Now do not go by reports, or legends, or traditions, or scripture, or conjecture, or inference, or analogies, or common agreement, or unexamined loyalty. When you know from your own experience that the qualities taught are skillful, shameless, unambiguous, and direct these teachings should be developed. When these teachings are praised by the wise they should be developed. When these teachings lead to unbinding and calm they should be developed.’

“What do you think, Kalamas – when the defilements do not arise in a person is this for their long-term welfare and happiness and for others long-term welfare and happiness?”

“For everyone’s long-term welfare and happiness.”

“And this person, free of the defilements, does not kill living beings or take what is not given, or take another’s spouse, or lie or induce other’s to lie. So what do you think – are these qualities skillful, shameless, and praised by the wise?”

“They are, sir. When developed and acted on they bring long-term welfare and happiness to one’s self and others.”

“Now, Kalamas, one who follows the Dhamma, who develops the Eightfold Path, free of greed, aversion or deluded thinking, alert and mindful of the path, experiences their life imbued with good will. Everywhere they go their mindfulness is imbued with good will, with gratitude, with a mind resting in equanimity. They are abundant and free from all agitation towards themselves and all humanity.”

It is certainly true that most later-developed customary Buddhist schools, while presenting an often contradictory “dharma,”  have no doctrine that directly leads to abuse of students. Unfortunately, it is astounding and profoundly sad how many deluded “Buddhist” teachers have flourished and that in many cases how continued ignorance has supported hurtful teachers and furthered ongoing ignorance and continued confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering.

If your Buddhist practice has brought you and others peace and understanding and will likely lead to awakening, continue wholeheartedly. If your Buddhist practice has left you confused or making excuses for your teacher or lineage then look to the Buddha’s direct teachings for answers, and a clear, direct, harm-free, and effective Dhamma.

From ignorance of Four Noble Truths, all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and suffering follows. This is the direct teaching of an awakened human being.


[1] Samyutta Nikaya 45.8

[2] Sabbasava Sutta and many other suttas

[3] The Pali Canon

[4] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

[5] John’s Bio

[6] Dependent Origination

[7] The Kalama Sutta

[8] Ratana Sutta

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