Posted by Glenn Wallis on October 13, 2011
All X-Buddhisms are incapable of genuinely conversing with the sciences and the humanities. They are, furthermore, unable to comprehend themselves. For both, we need Speculative non-Buddhism (or something like it). All Buddhism can ever achieve is a Narcissus-like self-referential iteration of its self-given image—as this or that X-Buddhism. For Buddhism must at all costs preserve its majestic omen pontificator: “The Dharma,” Architect of the Cosmic Vault and the Keeper of its Inventory. Only by feigning dialogue at the Feast of Knowledge can Buddhism preserve itself. This is fanged dialogue.
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In this post, I want to continue articulating the procedures of Speculative non-Buddhism. Because my method can appear abstract, it may help if I use a concrete example to get some traction. To that end, I want to refer to a recent article by Rita Gross called “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners” (links at bottom).
Rita Gross is an exemplary Buddhist studies and feminist scholar. She is also a senior teacher in Shambhala Buddhism. I am not critiquing her article point by point here. What I am doing is extracting the major premise and the major conclusion, and then analyzing these to illuminate Speculative non-Buddhist theorems. Gross’s body of work is a model of erudite sophistication combined with real-world urgency. She is the rare scholar who is willing to “lower” herself to the Buddhist hoi polloi. And she is the rare practitioner who has the courage to explore tradition’s terrain well beyond the prescribed boundaries.
Gross’s major point is this: “Modern historical studies challenge assumptions commonly held in Buddhist traditions.” A fuller version of that premise:
Modern historical studies show the contingency and historicity of developments in religions, something that traditional religions dislike intensely. Historical study of religion undercuts the claim that any specific form, any practice or verbal doctrine, could be unmediated, completely definitive, and one hundred percent an absolute truth. Instead, it fosters the view that all religious expressions and forms are relative, that is to say, they are partially the result of specific causes and conditions found in their specific environments. Even a religion such as Buddhism, which affirms impermanence as completely central, doesn’t really like to hear that its core teachings and institutions have changed over the years.
That premise is irrefutable. Historical study of, say, Pali canonical literature, obliterates the notion that it contains “the teachings of the Buddha.” Indeed, such study undermines the very notion of “the Buddha” as a historically recoverable figure. What we find instead of “sacred scripture” is a hodge podge of teachings that are more easily traceable to the machinations of various, and often vying, Buddhist communities. (That is why Speculative non-Buddhism refers to the Buddha as “the protagonist:” he is a historical figure entirely overwritten by a literary one.) The extent of damage that historical analysis can do to Buddhism’s self-understanding is literally limitless. In fact, a genuine dialogue between Buddhism and historical method could conceivably leave Buddhism so stunted and disfigured that no Buddhist would recognize it. So, you may be wondering, what demonic genie has Gross cast loose from the flagon of history; and what destruction has that genie of history wrought on Buddhism’s self-understanding?
None, and none, whatsoever. Gross’s major conclusion is given in her first sentence: “I am convinced that an accurate, nonsectarian study of Buddhist history can be of great benefit to dharma practitioners.” She states a fuller version of this conclusion at the end of the article:
Rather than being something that detracts from our commitment to Buddhadharma, to some almost a heresy, an accurate, nonsectarian history of Buddhism can enrich and improve one’s dharma practice immensely. This alone is a sufficient recommendation for such study. But the study of Buddhist history brings other benefits as well, such as providing tools to appreciate Buddhist internal diversity and thus promote greater communication within the greater Buddhist community. Perhaps most important, it allows us to develop a seamless account of Buddhism and modernity. For nothing is sadder than a religion’s demand that we turn off our critical intelligence when its traditions conflict with well-established results of modern science and history. The depth of Buddhadharma does not need such mindless acquiescence to convention.
From the perspective of Speculative non-Buddhism, this conclusion is wholly predictable. It is also disingenuous. The reason I say it is disingenuous is because it refuses to allow historical study to do its work. And it does so in the name of historical study. This work is given in Gross’s premise: historical method reveals “contingency and historicity;” it “undercuts” traditional and sectarian claims; it illuminates “relativity;” it produces results that tradition “intensely dislikes.” Gross’s conclusion usurps the power of historical method, and places that method in the service of preservation of the Buddhist status quo—indeed, even elevates Buddhism well beyond its current status. Historical study, she says, need not “detract from our commitment to Buddhadharma.” On the contrary, it “can enrich and improve one’s dharma practice immensely.” It can increase inter-sectarian understanding. Most importantly, it “allows us to develop a seamless account of Buddhism and modernity.”
Gross’s conclusion has made a mockery of her very premise, and worse: it has rendered historical study barren. In all honesty, Rita Gross cannot predict the outcome of subjecting tradition to historical methodology. Her own premise holds that the result might be (should be?) as devastating as it is unpredictable. Her conclusion, then, is really not a conclusion at all. It is the type of kindly inducement we get in dharma sermons: programmatic, encouraging, hopeful. Gross flinches. She not only leaves the historical genie in the bottle; she rubs it, closes her eyes, and makes a nice wish.
The greatest irony of Gross’s article comes at the very end: “For nothing is sadder than a religion’s demand that we turn off our critical intelligence when its traditions conflict with well-established results of modern science and history.” Like so many others, Gross earlier quotes the Dalai Lama’s contention that “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Can anyone—anyone—provide a single instance where “Buddhism” has altered one jot of its precious belief system in light of scientific findings? How would that even be possible? The Dalai Lama is able to rewire peoples’ thinking processes and alter the canonical texts? Contra the Dalai Lama and Rita Gross, from a Speculative non-Buddhism perspective scientific method and historical study cannot possibly change anything at all in Buddhism or in Buddhists. Why? Gross gives the reason—again, ironically, in my reading—in her very last sentence: “The depth of Buddhadharma does not need such mindless acquiescence to convention.” The irony is this: Yes, it does. The “depth of Buddhadharma”—as article of faith, as belief, as ideological game-piece, not self-evident fact—requires precisely “acquiescence to convention”—to Buddhist conventions of agreement.
From the Speculative non-Buddhism perspective none of this is new, and it is all wholly predictable. Gross is, after all, a “dharma teacher” (website link below). Buddhism, I contend, is utterly incapable of genuinely conversing with the sciences and the humanities. It is, furthermore, unable to comprehend itself. All Buddhism can ever achieve is a Narcissus-like self-referential iteration of its self-given image. It must at all costs preserve “the depth of the Buddhadharma.” And it can only achieve this by feigning—or outright forfeiting—genuine dialogue with other disciplines. Gross’s article is just the latest example of buddhistic flinching before reality. Gross, as a Buddhist, like all true-believers in transcendental norms, must insist that there is “no radical disjunction between traditional Buddhism and the results of modern scholarship,” and that “traditional Buddhism and the results of modern historical scholarship are deeply consonant.” Such insistence is the price of admittance to the Buddhist vallation.
Why not truly unleash historical method—remove the dharma-preserving constraints—and see what happens? What’s there to lose?
With this example before you, I would like to present some (abbreviated) related Speculative non-Buddhist postulates and theorems. You might want, then, to apply these to a re-reading of Gross’s article—or any Buddhist writing. In that way, you can begin to see the kind of heuristic work that Speculative non-Buddhist postulates and theorems can do. The overarching postulate of Speculative non-Buddhism is decision. Gross’s article is predicated on decision. Decision was discussed in depth in the previous post. The first postulate discussed here, reflexivity, ensues from decision.
Reflexivity. Performing, like an athlete, moves in the buddhistic arena (i.e., in “the world”–the buddhistic thought-world shaped by decision). Reflexivity is the automatic and habitual reaching toward the X-Buddhist dispensation as providing necessarily adequate explanatory terms and efficacious practices. X-buddhistic reflexivity is the diminishment of the capacity for Keats’s negative capability: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” The X-Buddhist practitioner is reflexive in direct proportion to his/her loss of negative capability. Reflexivity constitutes the practitioner’s achievement of dharmic specularity, wherein all terms and conditions are seen from above. Reflexivity is thus commensurate with affiliation in the X-Buddhist community: the more instinctive the reflex toward the X-buddhistic dipensation, the more assured is affiliation. Optimally, Buddhism, like all ideological systems, aims for hyper-reflexivity. To whatever degree it is present, furthermore, reflexivity disables the Buddhist qua Buddhist from discerning the decisional structure that informs his affiliation. It is in this regard that reflexivity constitutes a blinding condition.
Buddhist. A person reflexively beholden to the structural syntax of buddhistic decision. The embodiment of (“the shape of”), hence the central agent in, the buddhistic thought-world. A person whose speech concerning exigent matters is constructed from buddhemes (derived, in turn, from the fecund font of The Dharma). Given the radically protean nature of decisional adaptation, the possible modifications (X-) of the abstract noun “Buddhist” are illimitable.
The Dharma. The specular omen pontificator of samsaric contingency. Like God, Justice, Logos, Rta, The Dao, and so on, The Dharma (English: The Norm as buddhistic trinity of dispensation, truth, and cosmic structure) is the architect of the cosmic vault and the keeper of its inventory. As such, The Dharma is the buddhistic hallucination of reality. In its decisional function, The Dharma is the transcendent-immanent operator that synthesizes the purely immanent dyad of spatiotemporal vicissitude (samsara) and contingency (paticcasamuppada). The hallucinatory quality results from the fact that The Dharma is a function of a purely idealized (transcendent) grammar that produces oracular statements infinitum concerning the finite world (immanence). The Dharma is the buddhistic gathering together (under the authority of The Dharma) of reality’s posited (by The Dharma) splintered whole, which splintering is exhibited by the (dharmically indexed) world condition articulated (by The Dharma) as spatiotemporal vicissitude-contingency.
Buddhism. An explicit world-representation or thought-world founded on a universally accepted syntax, or decisional structure. As the history of the tradition exemplifies, this structure permits perpetual mutation, wherein decision is re-inscribed in ever-developing expressions of “X-Buddhism.” Doctrinally: a specular, ideological system founded on teachings given canonically to a literary protagonist named “the Buddha.” Aesthetically: a consistently recognizable rhetorics of display (texts, costumes, names, statuary, hair styles, painting, ritual artifacts, architecture, etc.). Institutionally: the manufacturer and conservatory of buddhistic charism. In the terms of its own rhetorics, “Buddhism” names the principal and superior representer of exigent human knowledge. Yet, as mentioned earlier, given the inexhaustible inventory of reality engendered by buddhistic decision—indeed, given the very syntax of decision itself—Buddhism can be formulated and arranged in innumerable guises. The word “Buddhism” thus indexes a consistent multiplicity: consistent, given its omnipresent decisional syntax; multiple, given its protean adaptability. The history of Buddhism shows it to be, to cite Laruelle, “the articulation of a universal market where the concepts are exchanged according to specific rules to each system, and from an authority with two sides: one of the [buddhistic] division of work, the other of the appropriation of part of what the market of the concepts produces”—for instance, morphological innovations, such as MBSR, Soto Zen, or Secular Buddhism.
Devitalization of charism. The Buddhist vallation is sealed by charism. Buddhistic charismata are the incalculable averred “gifts” of wisdom, knowledge, community, teacher-student relationship, healing, and so forth, that cascade out of the dharmic dispensation. Such gifts exert a binding influence on the Buddhist. One result of charismatic influence is the blinding of the Buddhist to decisional structure and decisional commitment. Enactment of Speculative non-Buddhist heuristics enables the Buddhist to unbind and unblind from the coercive yet largely unconscious effects of the charism. Imaginative curvature—speculative applied reconfiguration—is impossible until this charism is quelled.
Cancellation of warrant. A major consequence of applying Speculative non-Buddhist heuristics: the comprehensive withdrawal of buddhistic verity. [In the article above, Rita Gross expressed this verity as given in “the depth of the Buddhadharma.”] Indeed, given the coercive function of decision, the work of Speculative non-Buddhism cannot proceed until cancellation of warrant occurs. Cancellation is not an intentional act. It is the sudden dissipation—affective and cognitive—of a fata morgana (warrant).
Tricycle article sited here: “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners,” by Rita M. Gross
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