“When in doubt, bow.”

– anonymous master

Now we are conscious evolutionary beings, an evolving intelligence becoming aware of its own potential to go beyond present limitations. This very well applies to the way we go about Dharma. Living Dharma is about discovering the radical, indestructible, dynamic continuity, and then serving it fully, by best means available, for the benefit of everyone.

A Project for the New Buddhist Century

The days of initial immigrant Dharma are gone, but mainstream Buddhists still tend to frame a lot of their thinking in East/West terms, so the most frequently made threefold division isn’t View, Meditation, and Action, or even Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but instead it’s Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Vipassana. Perhaps it’s due to marketplace pressure and the ubiquitous brand™ management, that influence our classifications. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to create an impossible diversity, for these three modes of the tradition have never co-existed alongside, their historical forms never touching in any manner whatsoever. What will come of them in a shared timespace remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we also have a number of Buddhisms known by their national designation, including Korean, Chinese, but also American Buddhism.

A different distinction, however, needs to be made. What we ought to discern at this point is the three horizons, invisible to classical teachings, within which all previous threefold divisions, including the Zen-Tibetan-Vipassana, can be approached, practiced and interpreted: the strongly felt but often unnamed traditional, modern, and postmodern frameworks.

Because these frameworks include worldviews, identities, values, needs, and self-evident truths, they exert huge influence on the way Dharma in any form is understood, practiced, organized, and promoted. Typically they produce fundamentalist, rationalist, and relativist approaches to every aspect of Sangha, of Dharma, and of Buddha.

In terms of historical development, traditional precedes modern which precedes postmodern. There’s an undeniable organic continuity between them. Nonetheless, because of a dialectic tension, the three are notorious for deep mutual distrust, known at large as culture war. Such behavior is somewhat tragicomical, being reminiscent of actions by three generations in a dysfunctional family. As Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, “The evolutionarily later always subsumes and includes the evolutionarily earlier.”

Whether our practice is in the Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan, or any other stream of Dharma with headquarters in either East or West, we may go about it in any of the three ways. And any of these three ways has moderate and extreme manifestations. Traditional brings many values to the table, but can also produce rigidity and dogmatism. Modern approaches will emphasize pragmatism and critical inquiry, while often sliding into rationalism and reductionism. Postmodern approaches will assert the need for sensitivity and inclusion, and yet discard the many virtues of tradition and rationality as oppressive and limiting, while unwittingly paving the way for extreme relativism.

Now, the way to go forward is to develop and sustain objectivity in relation to all these, because we need their healthy aspects to establish a robust Dharma for the 21st century. To midwife a relevant, emergent Buddhadharma, we need what’s best in traditional, modern, and postmodern stages of psychological, cultural, and institutional unfolding, in addition to the unhindered ultimate realization, however defined, measured, or tested. In the words of the Integral philosopher Ken Wilber, we must “transcend and include.” That, in short, is the basis for a new Buddhist century.

Post East/West Buddhism

While the ‘first generation’ transmitting the Buddhist teachings and practices were Eastern teachers, at present it’s mostly the Westerners doing the actual teaching in the West. The days of early immigrant Dharma are gone, but many Buddhist networks in the West continue to maintain strong ties to Asia, which is only natural.

Domesticated translations of Dharma are becoming the norm, even while some historical forms persist, whether as art and ritual, as genealogical mythology, or as institutional anachronism. This process isn’t without comparison in Western religious traditions, though the actual shift is without precedent, for many specific changes are happening for the first time, and the effects of these are largely unpredictable. The influence of secularism and laicism, universal access to various technologies, and the ongoing commodification of spiritual offerings – such developments are seen around the world. What is exclusive to the West, however, is the cultural crucible wherein most if not all existing streams of Dharma not only meet, reconnect, and interact but also share stuff and merge, giving rise to unpredictable hybrids, beyond accepted notions of either purity, orthodoxy, or authenticity.

While most established temples and centers in the West could use larger regular memberships, new vitality springs in unexpected places. Such emergents will particularly be seen with groups formed around the actual possibility of realization, especially if they can establish the synergy of (1) core spiritual principles, (2) accessible instruction or guidance, (3) innovative modes of practice, and (4) transparent organizational structures, while allowing the broader public a degree of access to all four. ((An elaboration of these requires a separate article.)) While existing examples are certainly exciting and promising, their sustainability is yet to be confirmed. According to Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In this case, it’s not just what we do, but what we intend that will make the difference.


Speaking truth to power in most Western Buddhist circles equals to speaking out of turn. That is slowly changing. While loyalty and devotion are certainly essential to spiritual life, their expression is by no means limited to feudal ideals. With initiative, discernment and dignity, each individual practitioner should make a unique ongoing contribution to evolution.

Because politics and religion have never been strange bedfellows, we need both political and religious reform in the grassroots sangha. Forty years have been sufficient for each tradition to establish its own variant of doublespeak and soft taboos. We can use the next forty to act together and redeem a widely intelligible language of truth and reality, editing out the sectarian jargon in discourse whenever possible, voicing the implicit conscience in organizational dynamics, and building a vigorous online community based on real names and faces.

Coming back to what living Dharma is about, liberation and awakening are not be found outside of ourselves, and this also means we need to establish them in our communities and sitting groups, in our families and working places, in our friendships and significant relationships, starting with our fellow practitioners, students and teachers equally. Giving birth to new, vibrant mandalas of actual, wakeful people has never been more important.

Keep it real!


Hokai Sobol

Hokai Sobol is committed to the formulation of an authentic, no-nonsense spirituality for the 21st century, and has been waving the flag for 20+ years as teacher, publisher, and bridge builder. Teaching with groups and individuals, organizing events and programs, translating and publishing titles from leading edge authors, contributing actively through writings online and offline, he’s been spurring and assisting the emergence and propagation of a non-sectarian, real world, ‘post-eastwest’ Dharma.

Website: Hokai Sobol | 21st Century Dharma
Twitter: @HokaiSobol