“Stealth Dharma,” or “stealth Buddhism,” means Buddhists teaching aspects of Buddhism to non-Buddhists, without the word “Buddhism,” without Buddhist jargon, and without presenting the entire Buddhist framework.
Why would anyone do that?
Concepts and methods from Buddhism are escaping into the “thought soup” of our global culture. Their origin in Buddhism is being forgotten. Millions of non-Buddhists now practice Buddhist meditation techniques. Non-Buddhist teachers, like Eckhart Tolle, teach fragmented Buddhist concepts to non-Buddhist students. Meanwhile, the word “Buddhism” is becoming unattractive for some, having been presented as sugary, weak, hypocritical, and unrealistic.
As Buddhists, we might prefer that everyone learn Buddhism as a complete system. And, of course, Buddhist teachers will continue to teach it that way. But, we also need to face facts. In a consumerist age, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept any system whole. Most would rather choose and combine a personal mixture of bits from here and there. We cannot stop this “shattering” of Buddhism.
What we can do is influence the process. We can actively work to introduce parts of Buddhism we consider essential to general consciousness. That may be the best hope for preserving them, if Buddhism as a system faces extinction. Distasteful as it may seem, we might be more useful in the long run by actively helping to make fragments of Buddhism available to potentially billions of non-Buddhists, than by saving Buddhism intact for perhaps only a few million.
Despite the humorous use of the word “stealth,” this is not a matter of deception. It’s always right to be upfront about where the teachings and teachers are coming from. It’s just that origins may be irrelevant to most of the audience, and emphasizing the source can be counter-productive if it sounds like proselytizing.
Correcting distortions of Dharma, as pieces enter the global culture, is another aspect of stealth Buddhism. Some misunderstandings of Buddhism are nearly universal. These can be dispelled by introducing better ideas, that can out-compete the wrong ones. This needs to be done positively. For instance, denouncing Eckhart Tolle because he mixes up Buddhist ideas with eternalism would be counter-productive. It would be better to produce popular understanding of the ways that eternalism makes you miserable.
Stealth Dharma could take many, widely varied forms, depending on the aspect of Buddhism taught, and the audience. Many of these may look nothing like religion as generally understood.
“Stealth Buddhism” is most often used to refer to teaching Buddhist meditation to non-Buddhists. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training, which he described as “a secular path of meditation,” was what first made Dharma available to me. More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s packaging of meditation as a medical treatment for stress has been hugely successful. On a smaller scale, the Aro tradition’s free email meditation course teaches the Dzogchen sem-dé ngöndro, but mentions Buddhism only once. It seems to have reached more people than any of the other Aro materials. As a follow-on, the Aro “Members” program supports many non-Buddhists in their meditation practice. None of these “stealth Dharma” projects are manipulative attempts to recruit potential Buddhists. Instead, they make meditation, one of the most valuable aspects of Buddhism, available to people who may not want the rest.