Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of the things I've been seeing in quotes from and about the "occupy Wall Street" protesters is that they are creating a form of "true democracy".  As someone who has spent decades actively engaged in trying to understand and manifest in some sort of concrete fashion what "true democracy" could be, I thought I'd write a post about it.  Oddly enough, in thinking about the subject I've found my path leads back to the Dao, even though I originally saw it as just a side line.

I was involved in building Canada's fourth major party, the Greens.  My finger prints were at one time all over both the constitution of the Green Party of Canada and Ontario.  I've also been told that decision-making structures that I designed have also been adopted by other groups.  So this is one of those tiny little niches where I actually am a bit of a "world-class expert".  This knowledge has not been acquired easily, however, as each and every lesson learned involved agonizing work with some of the most mulish, idiotic people I have had the bad luck to meet.

One of the first things I learned was that "democracy" means a wide variety of different things to different people.  Unfortunately, for a surprising number of people it simply means that they always get their own way.   Luckily, I've found that the majority of people believe instead, that "democracy" means letting people have their say and then going along with what the majority believe.

This held true for the Green Party membership as well, but unfortunately, there was a subtle subtext to the self-selected group of people who had a Green membership.  That is, the overwhelming majority of them would not take action to "shut up" or "marginalize" people who disagreed with the majority.  This is probably one of the core Green beliefs and something that separates them from the vast majority of people.

This ideal makes sense if you consider that these members usually represent an extremely marginalized minority within their own home community.  For example, Greens believed in an end to economic growth long, long, long before you could even write about the subject on an Op Ed page in a newspaper.  The only suggestion by "mainstream" voices was the old Club of Rome report Limits to Growth that came out in 1972.  And when it came out, it initiated such a firestorm of opposition that whole industries of bullshit were designed in order to lessen it's impact on the imagination.  Most notably, this included the concept "sustainable development" and the "Brundtland Commission".

(Primarily, this was a remarkably successful campaign by a coalition of business and politicians of all stripes to create "plastic words" that would suck out all of the clear and startling meaning from "Limits to Growth" and replace it with a phrase that seems to mean the same thing, but in actual fact means whatever you want it to.   "Sustainable Development" purports to be about economic activity that will allow for the sustaining of the environment, but most people really use it to mean a system of environmental regulation that will allow economic growth to continue just as it always has.)

If someone comes from a community where they are used to being totally marginalized as the local "eco-freak" or "tree-hugger", they usually have an extreme sensitivity towards ostracizing someone else for having an unpopular belief.  As a result, Greens not only had enormous tolerance towards other people, they were willing to follow a form of decision-making that they called "Formal Consensus" in order to accommodate all points of view.

There are a great many different ways in which formal consensus can be done, but the system that Greens rather unconsciously stumbled into using is what is usually called the "Polish Parliament" system.   In effect, the Green Party in Canada for many years believed that the only way it could make decisions was if not one single person objected to a specific proposal, or, every single person present at any meeting had an absolute veto.

This would be bad enough, but in addition, the Green Parties of Canada did not have any sort of delegate system.   This meant that all anyone had to do to participate in any meeting (and wield a veto) was to show up.  And I mean anyone, because there was never any attempt to even force people to prove that they had a membership or were not cards-carrying members of some other political party.  Indeed, there were people who showed up for years and created all sorts of chaos who steadfastly refused to buy a membership because they didn't believe in the value of political parties, per ce.  (When I asked one of these guys why he continued to show up, he said "I just wanted to share my experience and wisdom with the Greens.")

As you might imagine, this system pretty much destroyed any chance that the Greens would ever be able to accomplish much of anything.  Not only did it hamstring the party, it ensured that it was almost impossible to build the membership.  I was very successful in building up the membership in my home riding, for example, but every time I brought people to a convention they would be so appalled by the chaos that they their interest in the group would drop off to nothing immediately afterwards.  As a result, I stopped encouraging new members to get involved outside of the riding.

Eventually, after ten years the Green Parties' membership had dwindled to the point where even the most obstinately "nice" members believed that there was no way that we could continue this way.  What happened was I able to convince the party in a plenary session to suspend the Polish Parliament system and have a simple majority vote on changing to a new system.   While my proposed alternative allowed a small number of individuals to delay passage of a resolution until their concerns had had ample time to be listened to and maybe accommodated, it did not give either an individual or very small minority the right to thwart the majority.  This passed by an overwhelming margin and we had a new system.  (This was my invention, but it has been called the "Bonser Method" because a fellow named Greg Bonser was the moderator---and a piss poor one too---at the GPO convention where I managed to get it passed.  As Ronald Reagan once famously said "You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit.")

You would think that once we had something like a functional system for collective decision-making in the Green Party things would improve.  Well, they did but structural dysfunction ultimately proved to be like the Hydra that Heracles was forced to battle.   Every time people were able to solve one problem, it seemed like two more would spring up to take their place.  For example, the membership wrote a constitution where elected individuals were supposed to be personally responsible for doing specific jobs.  What this meant was that the Board that governed the party found itself unwilling/incapable of setting priorities or creating long-term plans because each individual member of the board felt that they had their own personal mandate to do their specific "task" as they saw fit.

In one example, the person who was elected as the Board Secretary decided that the only sort of minutes that he would submit to the party were actual, complete transcripts of the meeting that he had done himself.  And since he was a very poor typist, it would take months for those transcripts to come out and reading them was a very tedious job.  Yet when I got a volunteer to write up a set of "unofficial minutes" and had them out to the membership the day after the meeting, I ended up being censured by the Chairman for overstepping my authority.    As you could see, keeping the elected secretary happy was more important to the Chair (and the other Board members) than actually letting the membership know what was going on.

 The fundamental problem that I had run up against was that there really is no such thing as a system of governance or decision-making that can force people to be fair and open about things if the average official doesn't really want to be fair and open, or, can't understand the problem.  Similarly, if the odd official really does want to "do the right thing", there is no way that they can prosper in the system and do good unless a lot of the rank-and-file members are willing to support her.  If most people are too busy or indifferent to get involved, or even pay attention, then various players for a variety of reasons will figure out ways to either consciously or unconsciously "fiddle" the system.

The overwhelming majority of Green Party members not only didn't know anything about the internal politics of the party, they had absolutely zero interest in learning anything about it.  I thought long and hard about this and came to the conclusion that while the majority of people in all parties know little about how their party actually works, the Greens know even less simply because people who join the Greens tend overwhelmingly not to be "people people", but are instead "ideas people".  That is, Greens are up in arms about the environment simply because they have spent a lot of time reading books about climate science and such.  In the same way that most mainstream politicians know absolutely nothing about science and ecology, most people who are either small "g" and large "G" greens know absolutely nothing about human society and how large institutions work.

And I'm not saying that the people who fought long and hard against coming up with anything like a functional Green Party were evil Machiavellis out to create an empire.  Instead, they were like children blundering around in the control room of a space ship and totally unaware of the enormous damage they were doing by playing with the switches.

I might also add that I too was one of those children.  I am someone who has spent most of his working life by myself (riding in a tractor seat, swinging a mop, walking a beat, etc) and as a result, know precious little about what makes other people "tick".  In addition, my PTSD has resulted in a volcanic temper based with the underlying assumption that when someone is mulish or obtuse that they really do know what they are doing and that they are trying to "fuck things up" on purpose.  Someone with greater insight into human nature either would have been a lot more diplomatic and as such accomplished more, or, (more likely) have understood the odds against me and never bothered trying in the first place.

Towards the end of my tenure in the Green Party I spent most of my time telling people that they had better "smarten up" and come up with something like a functional system or else someone from outside would come in and take over the party.  This, indeed, is exactly what happened.  In the case of the Green Party of Canada, what happened was a famous environmentalist by the name of Elizabeth May decided to join the party and run for the leadership.   At that point, the Green Party pretty much became the "Elizabeth May Party" and ceased to be much of anything else but a vehicle for promoting her particular view of environmentalism.  And getting her elected into Parliament (which it eventually did.)

Please note, I am not suggesting that Ms. May is any sort of a Machiavellian.  She is just an extremely hard-working woman who has devoted her life to pursuing a long list of important causes.  But she had never been a member of the Green Party before she decided to run and had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the party's internal issues or  history.  Moreover, she brought in a huge number of members who's only interest was in seeing her elected---because she is famous----and who's understanding of the complex issues behind the Green crisis are extremely limited.  The result is that the Green Party no longer has anything like a fundamental critique of either mainstream society or our political system.  It really is just another political party now.

To bring this back to the Wall Street protesters.

Looking at the protests, I could not help but think that they were all going down a similar blind alley that the Green Party traveled when I thought that it might be able to accomplish something.  Their statements about creating a "new form of democracy" through some sort of consensus structure is doomed to fail for the same reasons it did in the Green Party.  (And it also failed before in the women's movement for the same reasons, see the great essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.)

But I was listening to a professor  on the CBC talking about the Wall Street protests this morning and she made a very important point that I had missed.  She said that it didn't matter if anything practical comes from these protests.  What is important about protests is a change of consciousness.  And the protests against Wall Street for one reason or another have made it possible for people in the media and government to talk about redistributing wealth and increasing taxes again.  In the same way, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay rights, etc, movements didn't "accomplish" anything except change how people thought about some issues.  And when enough people had changed their opinions, then governments were able to take concrete legislative steps to actually change society in accordance with these new ideas.  And once society had changed enough, it eventually became increasingly hard for people to "get away" with the sort of casual sexism, racism, homophobia, etc, that were simply "the way things are" when I was young.

In the same way, the Green Party was able to raise issues about things like the need to end economic growth and live in a sustainable manner even though it eventually morphed into not much more than "Liberals in a hurry".

Those protesters out on the streets who think that they are creating a whole new world and a new way of doing things are right.  But not in the way that they think that they are.  The radical experiments in formal consensus and citizen assemblies are simply too poorly thought-out to be able to work.  And the movement that they are creating is simply too weak and fragile to avoid almost instant co-optation.  But the ideas that they are throwing out into the world will spread like dandelion seeds and take root in some of the most unlikely places.

I might also add that their analysis of the crisis we are facing as a society is flawed because it doesn't goes much deeper than identifying the greed of the bankers and other big business people.   Instead, I would argue that the economy has hit the limits to growth that the Club of Rome recognized so long ago.  Both climate change and Peak Oil are absolute limits that are ending the idea of economic growth that our entire society and culture is built around.  If you asked the people protesting on Wall Street who is "at fault" most of them would suggest that it is "the one percent" that they identify.  But the real problem, IMHO, is that our entire society is based on endless growth and we are hitting its limit.  The "one percent"r's are simply the specific individuals who find themselves in that slot and the political system that they have corrupted is just the inevitable result of the whole idea of progress.  And if you asked most of the protesters, (and certainly the people who think that they are doing something good), you'd learn pretty quickly that the only problem with the "system" is that it failed to deliver the goods they wanted, not that the whole idea that it can do so indefinitely is impossible on a finite planet.

There is one point I would take from the decades that I put into struggling in the Green movement that I would like to share with my readers, though.   I pointed out a while back in one of the Vow of Sustainability Environmental Vow chapters  that freedom is not really about having "choice" between one option or another.  Instead, I suggested that a more sophisticated definition comes from Cicero :   "Freedom is participation in power".   In other words, the freedom that a citizen has in a free and democratic society doesn't come from voting, but instead from participation in the actual process of government----through things like joining the Green Party or protesting on Wall Street.

I would add to Cicero's insight one of my own.  The only way we can "participate" in power is if we understand that we cannot accomplish anything of worth while through brute force but only insofar as we are moving in harmony with the times.  To be a free citizen in a democratic society it is necessary to participate in society instead of being a passive by-stander.  But to be a spiritually self-consciously free citizen, it is necessary to have some sort of personal distance from the great events of our times and understand how much we are all like leaves floating down the stream of the Dao.

So as a Daoist I can support the protests on Wall Street and suggest that they will probably do some good.  But I also have to understand that much as I would like these people to understand the deeper issues involved, I realize that they are not ready to understand that no matter what government does we simply cannot go back to the "good old days" and must, instead, learn to accommodate ourselves to a new way of doing things.  They will learn, but not through some sort of rational process but rather because they simply will have no other option.

That's the way the Dao is------.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Environmental Vow 16: Buddhism

Bringing in a Third Option

I hope that I have been persuasive with at least a few of my readers to the point where they believe as I do, that something like faith and duty are necessary for mobilizing humanity to save the planet.  Moreover, I also hope that they have been able to follow my explanation why traditional formulations are no longer acceptable to most citizens.  I also hope that people have followed my description of why Maslow's suggested ethic of “self actualization” has failed to fill the void.  Finally, I'd like to think that my little digression dealing with the complexities of freedom articulated clearly why I think it is important to reject naive assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the collective.

In effect, what I am suggesting is that in order to mobilize society in a way that will allow us to really deal with the problems that the human race will face during the coming time of environmental catastrophe we will have to develop some new way of mobilizing society.  This unifying force will have to mimic the best parts of faith and duty, without falling prey to the limitations that are all too obvious to modern people.  It will also have to avoid the problems that I have identified with the ideals of “self-actualization” and “follow your bliss” and instead has more in common with Cicero's ideal of “participation in power”.  

In the next part of this essay I'm going to examine some new trends in our society that I think show some promise about how we might be able to work our way out of the present mess.  


The big push to develop the new ethic of Self-Actualization or “Follow your bliss” came from a rejection of both patriotic duty and religious faith as the key motivational force in a person's life.  It was pretty obvious to a society that had gone through things like the reformation, the enlightenment and the World Wars that there needed to be something else to motivate intelligent people beyond religious faith and patriotism.  That is why thinkers like Maslow tried so hard to come up with some sort of replacement.   Unfortunately, in practice his suggestion quickly degenerated into not much more than “do your own thing”.  This is pretty thin gruel to live on in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.  It is totally insufficient to support people going through a period of crisis like the present ecological collapse.

Large minorities have decided to maintain their allegiance to traditional faith, which has led to the increased militancy of Protestant Fundamentalism and a sort of creeping Roman Catholic Fascism that places all power in the Pope.   Coexisting with and mostly overlapping with them are extreme patriots who exhibit a similar sort of belief in the value of the military and Executive authority to the exclusion of both the Legislature and Constitutional safeguards.   Beyond these reactionary tendencies, I would suggest that there are other, more promising currents at work.

One example is the emergence of North American Buddhism.   Even though it is difficult to find hard numbers, it appears that the number of Buddhists is growing very quickly in North America1.   While much of this growth comes from Asian immigration, a significant fraction (estimated at about 20-25%2) are Western converts of European descent.   While the absolute numbers of actual converts are quite small, the important point to remember is that Buddhism is not just another flavour of the Middle-Eastern religion once held by most North Americans, it is significantly different in what it understands a religion to be.  The fact that it is becoming a significant minority player on the North American religious scene is extremely relevant----not because of its numbers, but rather because of what it says about how the general public increasingly views religion itself.

The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all defined by the relationship between the believer and God.  This relationship is defined by a codified belief system that comes from divine revelation, tradition and ecclesiastic institutions that provide definitive “orthodox” interpretations of that revelation and tradition.  It is very important that the “believer” believe in what orthodoxy teaches or else bad things will happen---excommunication, execution for heresy or apostasy, and, eternal damnation.   In effect, it all comes down to loyalty to a cause.  If someone breaks ranks and starts thinking for herself, an angry hierarchy---both ecclesiastic and divine---will punish her for disloyalty.

Buddhism is very different.  It sees the world in terms of impersonal forces and scientific laws.    For this system there is no point in believing a creed on faith except in the provisional sense of taking advice from someone more experienced and experimenting to see if it works as described.  Moreover, a belief without understanding is seen as worthless because it means that it cannot be applied to a given situation with the sort of “skillful means”3 that is necessary to jump the gap between theory and practice.   There is no “angry God” who punishes you after death---just your own unresolved internal conflicts that manifest themselves as hallucinations on the deathbed4 or the impersonal law of karma that will create consequences that continue after the individual has expired.5  

What is important is the specific effort one puts into gaining real insight into what it means to be a human being.  This is achieved through a myriad of different practices that are tailored to different types of people who have lived in many different societies.  As such, a perennial question that is asked about Buddhism is whether it is a religion at all, or “just” a philosophy of life or school of applied psychology.  It is because of this emphasis on the process of self-investigation instead of a revealed belief system that even a thorough-going, self-proclaimed atheist such as Sam Harris is able to suggest that there is much of value in the Buddhist tradition.6  

This is not to say that Buddhism is exclusively or even fundamentally a science of the mind.  In many ways it is similar to the Abrahamic religions in that it also has a belief-system that has developed a complex enculturation process aimed at fostering a specific sort of mindset.  It has sects.  They have rituals.  Its monasteries and nunneries have rules of behaviour similar to the rules that govern Christian monasteries.  But it does have that one significant distinction in its core beliefs are---at least theoretically---based on the personal experience of individual monks and nuns, as opposed to submission to the will of an unknowable God, and, the Ecclesiastic hierarchy that speaks in his name.  

In a variety of ways this basic Buddhist message has at times been twisted and made into something that more resembles the Abrahamic religions.  For example, Zen Buddhism has made a fetish of lineage that has given far too much power to some Zen Masters, which they have gone on to abuse.7   Similarly at least one master of the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the late Chogyam Rimpoche, has been accused of abusing the extreme authority given to him by his followers.  In addition, the Institutions that govern Zen Buddhism were co-opted by the Imperial Japanese Empire in support of brutal oppression of other nations.8   Similar problems also exist in just about every other  branch of Buddhism.9   In each of these cases the well-known injunction of the Buddha that all his followers should be “lamps unto oneself” was ignored in favour of the ideal of the “Master” who's understanding was so greater than an ordinary human being that they were told to ignore the promptings of their own reason or conscience.

But having acknowledged all of these particular problems, there is still at the core of Buddhist religious tradition a central vision that suggests that people should ultimately not submit to any authority except themselves when it comes to spiritual matters.  One recent version of this statement that seems to be widely copied on the Internet states it thus:

Believe nothing on the faith of traditions,
even though they have been held in honor
for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested
and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.10

 Moreover, I would suggest that it is exactly this ideal of intellectual freedom that is most appealing to Western converts.

Is it possible that a Buddhist-based religious revival could occur in the West during our coming “dark ages” of ecological collapse?  Could Buddhist monasteries play as important a role in saving nature much as Benedictine ones did in saving Western Europe?

Unfortunately, I think that that is an overly optimist read of the situation.  Western Buddhism's emphasis on the importance of introspection as a means of gaining enlightenment has resulted in a significant tendency that allows naive followers to ignore all other elements of the human experience.  I have, for example, a wall-hanging that I purchased from an order of Tibetan monks that says

Mind is the forerunner of all states.
If with a mind that is calm and clean,
With him does bliss follow,
Mind is supreme, all are creations of mind.
One speaks or does a thing,
Like the never deserting Shadow.11

Obviously, if “Mind is supreme”, then the environment is a secondary issue that a good Buddhist shouldn't invest much energy into preserving.   Unfortunately, I think that this rather flippant understanding pretty much accurately sums-up the worldview of many, if not most Western Buddhists.

The Tibetan monks that I purchased this hanging from understood the fallacy of this point of view.  That is why when they gave their demonstration of harmonic chanting they also insisted on showing a debate between two monks on Buddhist theory.  (Unfortunately, since it was delivered in Tibetan instead of English, this point was lost on just about everyone in the audience.)   The point they were trying emphasize is that meditation---while key to Buddhism---is only one element of a far bigger system.

Almost the only element of Buddhism that most Western Buddhists see are meditation classes.   And in substance, these almost invariably work from a therapeutic instead of a religious model.     Psychotherapists serve a significantly different role than do religious teachers.  Religions are supposed to tell us things about the universe---what is “right”, what is “wrong” and how society should work.  Therapists, on the other hand, are only legitimately concerned about the individual they are treating.   Ultimate issues are set aside so they can focus exclusively on how to help an individual person become more functional in her day-to-day life.  That is why psychiatrists, for example, assume the posture of being “non-judgemental” in their interactions with the client.  Meditation taught outside the structure of the Eightfold Path is non-judgemental, but within its bounds, it is very much the opposite.

The Eightfold Path is an attempt to find the absolute essentials that a person must have in order to live a “good” life---in both senses of the word.   When we say that someone led a “good” life it can mean that it was relatively pleasant and the person who lived suffered less than most.   We can also say that a person was a “good” woman, even though she suffered from terrible deprivation---because she was a moral, honourable and engaged person.  Because Buddhism teaches that a great deal of our sense of well-being is derived from our mental state instead of the physical situation we inhabit (e.g. “Mind is the forerunner of all states---”), it believes that it is impossible to separate these two definitions of “good”.   In effect, the fact that the two senses of the word are linked reflects a fundamental truth, not a mere happenstance of language.  For Buddhists, enlightenment is not just a mental state that can be scotch-taped onto just about anyone.  Instead, it is the result of having a certain way of looking at the world and behaving in a certain way.    

The Eightfold Path of Buddhism is an attempt to link together both sides of “good” in an easily remembered prescription for how to live the best possible life, both in terms of personal satisfaction and in terms of morality.   The are:  right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and, right concentration.    Note that the Western popular understanding of Buddhism---derived from all those meditation classes---usually only includes the last two, “right mindfulness” and “right concentration”.   Almost no emphasis is placed upon any sort of theoretical understanding of humanity and its place in the universe, or, “right view” and “right intention”.  (This was the element of the Eightfold Path that those Tibetan lamas were trying to emphasize in their scholarly debate that I mentioned above.)  Nor is there any emphasis usually placed upon how a human being should interact with his society at large, or, “right speech”, “right action”, and, “right livelihood”.   If there is any attention paid to “right effort”, it probably revolves around how much effort a person should put into their meditation practice.

The key issue that explains why Western citizens are usually only exposed to and embrace the last two parts of the Buddhist Way centres around the issue of renunciation.   Buddhism in Asia has primarily been a religion of monks and nuns.  In the West, it is primarily a religion for lay people.   Monks and nuns are people who have made a very conscious choice (at least the ones who entered the convent voluntarily) to live a certain way and give up a wide range of opportunities and activities that are taken for granted by most of the general public.  The idea is that as a way of training the mind (as well as being able to form a stable community) monks and nuns voluntarily agree upon living a very specific way.  This special way of living has been codified in different ways by different Buddhist sects and traditions---just like orders of Christian monks and nuns have adopted their “rules” that govern their life.   And if you look at the rules that exist, you can see that they are in some cases very specific.

Theravada Buddhism, which is one of the older schools of Buddhism, has a very large number of rules and regulations governing the behaviour of monks and nuns.   A collection of rules, the Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha, has been translated by Buddhist scholar of the name Thanissaro Bhikkhu and published on the Internet.12  Here are a few bits and pieces so readers can get a flavour of the rules and regulations.   From the chapter titled “Pārājika: Rules entailing expulsion from the Sangha (Defeat)” comes:

Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying,): "My good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life," or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in affiliation.

From the section titled “Saṅghādisesa: Rules entailing an initial and subsequent meeting of the Sangha” comes this:

Should any bhikkhu — corrupt, aversive, disgruntled — charge a bhikkhu with an unfounded case entailing defeat, (thinking), "Perhaps I may bring about his fall from this celibate life," then regardless of whether or not he is cross-examined on a later occasion, if the issue is unfounded and the bhikkhu confesses his aversion, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the Community.

Obviously putting a hit on someone is not monkish behaviour, but it is also against most societies' legal codes anyway.   Suggesting suicide as an option or bearing false witness are not usually dealt with by civil courts, but it is also easy to see that these would be very serious crimes in a spiritual community.  I don't think anyone would find these rules onerous to follow.

But these codes tend to have many, many rules that govern many different elements of monastic life.  They exist because it is really difficult to get people to live together in these sorts of communities without having them blow up due internal friction.  These are a very few of these more “practical” rules.

Should any bhikkhu accept robe-cloth from the hand of a bhikkhunī [a Buddhist nun] unrelated to him — except in exchange — it is to be forfeited and confessed.

Malicious tale-bearing among bhikkhus is to be confessed.

The damaging of a living plant is to be confessed.

Should any bhikkhu knowingly lie down in a dwelling belonging to the Community so as to intrude on a bhikkhu who arrived there first, (thinking), "Whoever finds it confining will go away" — doing it for just that reason and no other — it is to be confessed.

Monks shouldn't have “special friend” nuns that do favours for them.  Monks shouldn't be “tattle-tales” and “gossips”.   Monks shouldn't trample the flowers at the monastery.  Monks shouldn't intrude on the private space of other monks.  These are simple rules aimed at keeping the peace.

As anyone who reads through these long lists of rules---and all the Buddhist sects have their own---can see, being a monk or nun was, and still is, very much not an issue of “follow your bliss”.   Instead, it is a pretty heavy undertaking that involved a radical restructuring of a person's priorities and physical surroundings so he can integrate himself into a community that survives on very limited resources.  It is very much the same sort of radical renunciation that a Benedictine monk took when he decided to give up his life as an aristocrat and became a brother who would drain swamps, cut hay and get up in the middle of the night to sing divine services.  Of course, in both Buddhist and Benedictine cases the change was a lot less dramatic for those who jumped into monastic life from being a poor peasant.  But it was, and still is for modern Buddhist monastics, a very far cry from the life of the middle-class North American who takes a few meditation classes, begins a regular meditation practice, and begins to call himself a “Buddhist”.

I've raised this point as an outsider to the Western Buddhist world and had several very engaged people reinforce this assessment.   For example, one person responded to a blog posting with the following comment:

For thirty years I taught Buddhism in various capacities; as a monastic, as the Abbot of a Temple, as a Prison Chaplain, in courses as Junior Colleges. The one aspect of Buddhism which I found impossible for the students to absorb was renunciation. Any time renunciation was brought up (and you can’t really talk about Buddhism without discussing renunciation since renunciation is central to its world view) people would argue that renunciation is not necessary, or no longer necessary, or that it is misguided; that one can have everything one wants on a material level as well as spiritual attainment. In discussions I have had with other Buddhist teachers my experience has been affirmed, they also found it literally impossible to communicate the place renunciation holds in Buddhism. (One wit put it that Buddhism in the West is ‘the upper middle class way’.)13

So while traditional Buddhist abbies might very well serve the same function as the Benedictines did during the Dark Ages, Western Buddhism doesn't have at its core the same commitment to lifestyle change that Eastern Buddhism had through the Eightfold Path and different monastic codes of conduct.  Instead, I think it can be said that it has been “infected” by Maslow's self-actualization ideal to the point where people simply aren't willing to accept the renunciation prescription that is encapsulated in the Eightfold Path and various monastic codes.

Having said that, it still is profoundly worthwhile to see that so many Westerners still want to find a religious option for their life that also includes the notion of “be a lamp unto yourself”.  Moreover, it is important to realize that even if people do not immediately twig onto the Eightfold Path, the very act of deciding to follow a regular meditation practice is itself a much greater commitment than that usually required by the Abrahimic religions.  For those people who do stick to a meditation regime, there is a significant chance that they will want to pursue a deeper understanding of Buddhism, which will in turn lead them towards a more authentic experience.  But the end of a road is not the beginning, and many a traveler never makes it all the way.