Are Buddhists Stupid?
Posted by Matthias Steingass on June 8, 2012
I dislike referring to the work of Howard Gardner; but, for better or worse, his idea of multiple intelligences seems to have settled into the memestream. Just this morning, I heard a sportscaster refer to LeBron James as “a genius.” Just as I was muttering “huh?” under my breath, the sportscaster rattled off a list of James’s athletic abilities. He meant, of course, that James was a genius at basketball. Gardner holds that such locutions are wholly justified. We may, he says, speak of intelligence as manifesting within specific domains; namely: spatial, linguistic, musical, interpersonal, logical-mathematical, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and kinesthetic.
So, if counting cards at a blackjack table is any indication, Rain Man was a logical-mathematical genius. But when it came to interpersonal relations, he was a fucking idiot. I am an intelligent decoder of obscure ancient Sanskrit texts. But ask me to explain my financial matters, and you will be subject to the incoherent burble of a sorry-ass moron. Why not, then, ask whether we may speak of “multiple stupidities“? I am not ashamed to say that, in many areas of my life, I am stupid. How about you?
In the following essay, Matthias Steingass argues that x-buddhists exhibit a specific form of stupidity. I will let you read for yourself what he says about that. I would like to take a moment and put his argument in the terms of this blog’s project. Very briefly, the issue concerns what we may call “the principle of sufficient buddhism.” This is, obviously, the idea that when it comes to “the crucial matters of life and death,” x-buddhism is sufficient in itself. Whether we are concerned with the nature of consciousness or with the tone of our language, x-buddhism’s got it covered. Some of you may be thinking, “well, the Salvador Dalai Lama conducts dialogues with scientists all the time.” Yes, he does, indeed. But if you be a gambling man or woman, I suggest you put your cheese on x-buddhism’s remaining just as it is, thank you very much. For x-buddhism is sufficient in and of itself. It don’t need no science telling it what up.
Might we see this insistence on sufficiency as a sign of x-buddhism’s stupidity? Imagine if LeBron James were to approach every life situation through the lens of basketball. Don’t you think that would be pretty stupid? More to the point, wouldn’t it reveal specific domains of stupidity in his life? An x-buddhist is a person who, by definition, subscribes to x-buddhism’s prescriptions for living life. You are, furthermore, x-buddhist to the very extent that you do so. Can we ask, then, whether the principle of sufficient buddhism makes the x-buddhist stupid—stupid in a very particular, x-buddhist, way?
As you will see from Matthias’s piece, the point of employing a solid Anglo-Saxon term like “stupid” in communication is not to bully. What is the point, then? Ultimately, the point is fostering human freedom. “Stupidity” is related to the words “stunned” and “stupor.” Here, we can suggest a double correspondence: (1) the extent to which one subscribes to the x-buddhist program—as a sufficiency—is the extent to which s/he is stunned or in a stupor; (2) the extent to which one awakens to this condition is the extent to which s/he is free. In our image, Rimbaud asks: “What is freedom?” Well, that’s a big question. Can we start by asking about the constraint that our capacity for stupidity places on our capacity for freedom?
We have featured many styles of presentation on this blog. You will encounter here essays and posts that are formulated from classical thesis-arguments to schizo-poiesis, and several venerable genres in between. According to many critics, you will also encounter here screeds, diatribes, vituperation, fulmination, invective, harangues, and polemics (all actual accusations—or are they observations?).
Matthias’s piece inaugurates a new form on the blog. For now, I’ll just call it a “passion editorial.” What I have in mind is what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Gartner means when he says, in Outrage, Passion, and Uncommon Sense: How Editorial Writers Have Taken On and Helped Shape the Great American Issues of the Past 150 Years: “Today’s editorials…inform but do not inspire…Sometimes, they lack opinion. Usually, they lack passion.” Matthias is very personal in this editorial; but he also offers one argument after another. All of you who would so quickly dismiss his piece for its passionate intensity—as vituperation, or invective, or whatever—please note that fact well. Better yet, respond to the arguments, whether they are implicit or explicit, and whether they are couched in language that is acceptable to your sensibilities or grating on your fine sense of politeness.
Finally, a word about right speech, passion, and the fate of x-buddhism in North America. I just saw a quote on an email from a friend: “I am not interested in good will. I am interested in change” (Glenn Close). It made me think of this long exchange I read recently on an x-buddhist blog. One of the interlocutors was arguing. He used words like “stupid” and “wrong.” His voice was big. His partner in conversation—an increasingly influential figure in contemporary North American x-buddhism—was being impeccably polite. He sprinkled his comments with words like “friendliness” and “I’m sorry if.” His voice reminded me of a line from Hilary Mantel’s new book, Bring up the Bodies, in which she describes Anne Boleyn as a queen tamed “to a small voice, empty of everything except politeness.”
X-buddhists leaders: If change must indeed come at the cost of diminished good will, which will you choose?
And now, a big voice. Brace yourself . . .
The X and the Non—One Year
by Matthias Steingass
When I discovered this blog in August 2011, I was really surprised. I had never before seen a blog or any internet site addressing Buddhism in such a way—in a way which seemed logical to me. Questioning the hidden assumptions of Buddhism, one’s own hidden assumptions, asking how the mind works, seemed to me at the heart of Buddhism. The problem was that nowhere in the forms of Buddhism that I had encountered in the course of several years, was asking questions in an open, unrestricted way welcome.
This blog is an absolute exception; and with this, it is about the real. It is about the real because a question which cannot be asked is a distortion of reality. To be hindered in honest articulation is always a move against the force of thought—against that which makes the world visible. It is not about the one reality: it is about making visible facets of reality which are all truthful to the conundrum humans find themselves in.
I think that one has to have a very different mind-set not to flinch in view of one’s own contradictions, and to really be able to formulate questions that make the distortion of reality visible. This blog is about that: Seeing contradictions and distortion and formulating questions which address the distortion and the ensuing disturbance one feels when the seeming smoothness of one’s little nicely gardened spot on earth gets invaded by the worms of doubt. Certainty is for true believers. Knowledge is for those who dare to doubt.
This will sound arrogant, I know, but I come more and more to the conclusion that Neo-Buddhism in the West is for the kindergarden. – “Thou shalt not ask!” – The one who comes do Buddhism in the West has to put himself into the position of the most stupid person. One has to think and behave in the most ridiculous ways. One has to forget even that which is simply the heritage of being human. It is not only that in our culture, being human, is replaced with an infantile narcissism which believes in reincarnation, karma and the free market; no, one is forced even to distrust our capacity for the most basic impulses of interaction: of caring, of giving our fellow being a helping hand and comforting the other. With this forced stupidity, consumer Buddhism goes hand in hand with consumer capitalism. For the most basic human actions you need either a self-help 101-book or just another smiling guru from the bustling market of wishful thinking and esoteric bullying.
Glenn Wallis wrote a critique of Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism a short while ago (find a German summary here).
Stephen Schettini, The Naked Monk, wrote a response to Wallis’s piece and, in doing so, proved: Neo-Buddhism, Western Buddhism the whole x-buddhistic scene, is for people who feel morally superior while they have nothing to say. The response and the ensuing discussion proves, for me, that not only is x-buddhism unable to work with real thought, to think, to infer, to question, to doubt—it proves that secular Buddhists, like any other Buddhist—like the Neo-Tibetans for example, who are certainly the most superstitious bunch around in pay-for-enlightenment-buddhism—have no argument when they are criticized. All they know is a primitive ad hominem. They simply do not know what a discussion is. They ask for tolerance but in reality they ask thinking humans to shut up. This is, admittedly, a generalization that leaves out many details. But then, up until now, there is simply no response to the distortion made visible in the critique of Secular Buddhism. Why not?
Buddhism as I have experienced it over some years since 2004 and on the internet in online forums over the last eight, nine months needs people of a mind-set that has to be assured over and over again. Yes, do this, it is the right thing, just follow me, no need to ask about it. Tradition is good, no need to doubt, no need to think. Just bow, sit down and shut up, mind your mantra and – that’s all.
This is nothing for people who want to explore. Exploration is about risking something. It is about leaving the known. It is about taking the risk to think new thoughts, as Glenn puts it. It is thereby also about risking being wrong. But hey, you simply close down a wrong position and move on. The only hindrance is a mindset which is fettered to the one and only truth. I myself have been on a dead end road several times, and I feel lucky about what I have encountered. But what is this different mindset of mine which does not fit into credulously serving every other colorful fool burning incense, chanting incomprehensible bullshit? Once, with a healthy dose of satanic aversion against those who are so sure about themselves, “non serviam” seemed a good motto to me. But in the end it turned out not to be about refusing to reach out. It is about killing the false master, the pseudo-authority. It is against those who take pride in postulating the truth in one direction only. The Buddha said this and that, Stephan Batchelor extracts what he really meant and the Secular Buddhists accept. No experiment allowed?
I was fascinated by William Burroughs. I experimented with cut-ups, with film, with cassette-recorders. I was fascinated by Aleister Crowley, who simply invented his own cult, injecting a refreshing dose of that special kind of English humor (which of course his followers had difficulties seeing). This was much more interesting than the easy-going esoteric pulp, when it was en vogue in the nineteen eighties to just change one’s name into something Asian, and then to ride the road to nirvana. As if it takes nothing more to hang a mala around one’s neck or to participate in a strange Tibetan ritual to become a member of a global elite of the real wise. How lucky I was to not follow this easy way, I can only see today. The esoteric experiment that people like the Dalai Lama or the Baghvan provided shipwrecked big-time. But this is another story—about a youth who searched eastwards and found nothing but cheap tricks to turn on the endorphin-machine without any clue what to do with it. In the end it shows that addiction ensues anyway. Whether you put a needle in your vein or get a kick out of lying flat-bellied in front of a fool from the funny-farm is the same in the end. If you don’t develop a mind of your own you will be destroyed.
Cutting magnetic tapes to pieces and splicing them together again, hearing what happens to the text when it comes together in new constellations is by far more instructive and creative than anything else I happened to see in x-buddhism. But doing cut-ups, working with collage, using samplers to distort and bench speech into strange articulations is not the mind-set an x-buddhist has. Cutting up reality, pasting it together again and hearing what happens at the new intersections is a kind of divination which really can expose something new. It is like forcing the mind to think differently. But one has to be curious and one has to curse ready solutions once and for all. In 1954 Burroughs warned Jack Kerouac that “Buddhism is not for the West. We must evolve our own solutions.”[i] In 1958 he writes to Alan Ginsberg and complains that Kerouac would end up in a cul-de-sac practicing Buddhism without any psychoanalytical insight. Kerouac, with his sad end, might look like an exception, but his is a romantic notion which pervades all Buddhism in the West and which might be an overarching cause for all this longing for the one truth. Would Alan Ginsberg sit down with Chögyam Trungpa without such a longing? While the former tried to get rid of his own demons the latter had a great time in the Free West putting everything into his system that served his limbic pleasure dome. Trungpa was a boozer, just like Kerouac, the only difference being that he made a cult out of it. Trungpa was an artist, just like Kerouac, but both went astray with no idea of what they were doing. Trungpa obviously had no idea about yoga or asceticism. He was a real addict. He put himself to death with drugs. Men like Bukowski, Burroughs or Crowley didn’t achieve this. These men had a certain honor. The honor to admit the addiction. The fool from the top of the hill thought it was yoga, while it was plain bullshit. Addiction doesn’t mean self deception in any case. Being clean isn’t the entire matter. The Dalai Lama, as the most prominent Buddhist in the world, proves this. He is hooked, too. To the marketing guys—and he doesn’t know. That’s the worst thing that can happen. It’s the curse of playing the postmodern jumping jack jester (German: Hampelmann), having a great time being fucked up.
So what is the mindset that contrasts to being under the spell of the funny guys? When I took a look into Buddhism in 2004—after being marginally interested in it for a long time and after having practiced yoga-sittting-breathing for quite some time in my twenties—it soon became clear to me that Buddhism must implode at some point. It has built-in its own annihilation. It is about the mind and its creativity; and in no way is it about certain cultural artifacts like mantras, weird clothing, having permission to teach in a certain tradition, having practiced mechanically this or that for long periods of time—that is all a betrayal. When the Tibetans speak about a certain super-secret kind of refuge, this is simply about the mind, consciousness, awareness, the being right here in a situation. There is a big difference between this and “mindfulness.” Being right here in a situation is devoid of the narcissistic self-assurance that everything is ok or that one is able to see things as they are. It is about a certain kind of status quo. It is about having a certain kind of self-esteem. In a way it is simply about becoming human—and Buddhists, the thinking ones, haven’t been doing the only thinking about this.
Kant’s answer to the question “What is enlightenment?” is very much about this: Stop being full of angst when developing and thinking your own thoughts. Contrary to this injunction, postmodern Buddhism is a regression into a hierarchical order where some magical teacher with perennial knowledge—a magician-like figure—tells you what it is all about. It is a move backwards, backwards from the curse of postmodernity—the confusing everything-is-possible; all-is-equal; truth-is-an-agreement-and-a-deal—into an order of being told. That is it what x-buddhism is about: Being told. Being underway backwards, in the wrong direction. It is a chimera. It is valuing yesterday more than today, the dead more than the living. It is valuing the fool from the top of the hill more than the person right here on my side. It is a regression; and the new is forbidden. X-buddhism is about sticking your head in the sand instead developing new forms of interaction beyond postmodernity.
I think x-buddhists should ask themselves whether they are really too stupid to think for themselves? Why is it that you should know The Word of the Buddha before you set out to enlighten yourself? X-buddhists lament the most basic things every other chimp knows. I see discussions like “should I teach my child Buddhism and dependent arising if she or he is in the midst of a dramatic situation” (loss of a parent for example)? Who—or what—is making you so stupid? Aren’t we sensitive beings? I hear x-buddhists argue that before we get into social engagement we have to “develop,” we have to become “bodhisattvas,” we have to be “mindful.” The Lamas say and you obey. But these lamas, gurus, fucked up roshis in their splendidiot isolation obviously forget that we are social animals 24/7. They forget that our brain is a interactive organ all the time. So to whom do we turn to ask for advice in postmodernity? Take a look at your teachers. How much do they really know about the circumstances we live in? For what good reason do you need people jetting around the globe to tell you about mindfulness? If you are unsure about how to act in this world in which all tradition is worthless, and in which we are lost often enough, why not look for role models right next door? Why do you need a Batchelor, a Naked Monk, a Grinning Lama poking his nose in your life while giving initiation or a stupid just-shut-up-and-do-your-zazen, sucker? X-buddhists should ask themselves whether they really are so stupid that every thought has to be brought to them as if it were a splinter from the cross of Jesus Christ. If you act like this, you are driving through life looking into the rearview-mirror; and while you try to decipher the writing on it—objects may appear farther away than they are—wham!!! at some point you hit the concrete wall of reality.
If you want to know what mindfulness is really all about, just ask someone who knows his business. What else is it? How does a chef cook a good dish? Even the worst capitalist is mindful. A hooker knows more about mindfulness than your holy meditator. The prick is the proof.
What does it take to recognize that somebody is in despair or delighted? Nothing. Every gorilla can do it. Kick the lama in the ass, shoot him in the head, cut him to pieces and through him away into the organic waste-bin for decomposition.
What does it take to reach out, to get into contact? It takes: Real contact! That is precisely what our society destroys: Contact. X-buddhism is too stupid to realize that. It has no methods to look behind the mechanics of postmodern society. The Word of the Buddha is worthless.
Don’t you want to play? Do you really want to be mindful all day from moment to moment, forgetting with all this mindfulness what it is like to be in a situation? Aren’t you curious about what is out there, beyond mindfulness? When you combine, without any respect for tradition, everything that is at hand, and to do so in new ways? Does a child learn to be creative? No she doesn’t. She has no respect. She plays. Playfulness is it.
So what is the difference? It is about curiosity! In spiritu ludi. And perhaps it is absolutely useless to wait for a response from x-buddhism. What more can it offer but absolutely nothing? Has there ever been something new in x-buddhism? Punk Rock Meditation, MBSR, stale re-combinations with no impulse but the one to have an USP—a Unique Selling Proposition?
We have a tradition in which there is a great deal of thinking about thinking. I find that Husserl, in describing the “epoché,” does exactly what, in very different wording, a Tibetan calls “shyiné,” calm abiding.[ii] What does Nietzsche mean by his “eternal recurrence”? Strangely, it seems as if he turns “momentary transience into an object of unconditional affirmation and thereby into a locus of absolute worth.”[iii] What Ray Brassier has to say about eternal recurrence in his last chapter of Nihil Unbound should ring alarm bells in the ears of Buddhist meditators—if, that is, they would not have their x-buddhism be the great occlusion they make of it by feasting on the rotten remnants of a corps named The Original Word of the Buddha.
In doing this, x-buddhist searches for himself a role to fulfill. Martin Heidegger asks why it is that we have to give ourselves such a role. Have we become so meaningless to ourselves that we need a role? Did all things become so unimportant that they yawn at us? Is it that we, from sheer boredom vis-à-vis ourselves, have to take on a role not to get lost in postmodernity’s “truth is just a convention.” Why, he asks, are we so compelled to take on a role in an effort to be something? Why, do we pretend to escape truthlessness? If truth is just a convention then nothing is a true truth. Is the solution really to pretend that we re-present something that is really true?
The x-buddhist solution is the regression. The true word of the Buddha. X-buddhism has no solution to this problem of postmodernity. Of course not. But it is all here. The great x-buddhist teachers should look at our tradition. There are texts—that is, real original thought—that deal with our situation, in our time, with knowledge about our circumstances. And it does so without a blind man poking in long-cold ashes.
To give an example regarding meditation: Heidegger in his text “Lagebeschreibung; Grundstimmung”[iv]—Situation Report; General Mood—in which he asks the above questions, is making a very precise analysis of our situation. That we in our philosophy always only re-present man in his situation without ever becoming being. Such a differentiation is absent from any x-buddhist discourse. X-buddhism is by definition unable to see itself as re-presenting a certain position vis-à-vis being, in contrast to being. But it is not only this differentiation—which is, I think, also what Glenn Wallis tries to convey in “Nascent Non-Buddhism“—Heidegger also goes on (and this, again, should ring alarm-bells in the ears of meditators), to solve the postmodern riddle with the very problem it poses: Boredom. Everything is equal, nothing is true, we can choose as we like; there are no more binding rules in postmodern nihilism. It is so cool. Why not Buddhism today, and who knows what tomorrow? Even the Dalai Lama gets boring at a point. He is boring. It takes a while, but before long we are up for something new. But, of course, before long, again we are bored again.
The German word for boredom is “Langeweile”—literally “long while” in English—and Heidegger identifies this as a “general mood.” A mood we generally try to chase away. Instead of being bored we try to while away the time. But he asks if maybe this long while—boredom—isn’t understood rightly; that it, maybe, holds a certain key to the problem it itself seems to be.
But is it again that we must do something? No, we need not do anything. “This boredom becomes significant on its own accord in that moment when we are no longer against it. It does so, that is, if we no longer react to seek safety, but when we give room to it.”
Now, if this is not a most original meditation instruction—meditation through boredom, whoever has heard about such a thing?—I don’t know what can be better. It is in our language. Everybody can look it up. It certainly is much easier than to learn Tibetan, Pali, classical Chinese, etc. One can decipher it, think about it, criticize it—all by oneself. One can look for oneself—didn’t some important man in history say this: look for yourself!
What is important here is that this is not the cheap esoteric quietism one can purchase at every other x-buddhistic hangout. Heidegger differentiates very well between a re-presentational role-playing and a significant existential mood. But this short re-presentation here cannot be more than a hint. There must be involvement. At another place, Heidegger says the following about engagement with new thought: “The more original a thinking is, the richer becomes its unthought. […] But for common sense, the unthought of a thinking always remains unintelligible. […] [What is needed is] appreciation. This demands the willingness that we could be, in our own thinking, overthrown be the unthought.”[v] In other words, common sense is no way to engage new thought because it is always only the known. To think something new is to go beyond known thought. The way to do this is to acknowledge that somebody really is thinking differently and thinks thoughts unknown to us—that s/he is indeed bigger than we. The Word of the Buddha is in this sense nothing new, because, as the example of Stephen Batchelor shows, it is a reconstruction with our common sense at its base, with all its limitations. It is, at last, just another re-presentation, a specular mirage, a circularity.
The point with boredom as meditation is that we have here, in one example, one of our own thinkers we can decipher all by ourselves. It may not be an easy task, but it is nothing compared to what lengths x-buddhists go to “accomplish” something. Such a text would be one to discuss, and its insight could be put to real work in buddhist sanghas. The “x” could vanish in quite some cases. Moreover, the words, the terminology, are learnable. It is not the great guessing game in which one is ensnared when one looks at old texts about meditation in translations from long-forgotten languages. It is the real here in which one could learn. We can even forego the jet-setting, oh-so-wise meditation masters. Everybody can be bored. One needs no teacher to learn it.
It all depends on how autonomous x-buddhists can become, and what they really want. Do you want to play a role or do you want to be significant?
The significance of this blog of Glenn Wallis’s and of speculative non-buddhism lies in the fact that it tries to think new thoughts. The intentional destruction of the transcendental part of the decisional dyad leads in every instance to a spontaneous new configuration of this very dyad. The transcendental part, as I see it, never ceases to “exist,” but its destruction forces thinking into new configurations, if, that is, it dare combine itself with new components. We are free to recombine everything under the sun and look at what happens. The heuristics Glenn provides is something of a cure. In William Burrough’s terminology it is apomorphine. It is about risking disenchantment. Buddhism is about disenchantment. It is even about disenchantment with itself. Nothing remains.
This is about life. It is about the real life. About angst, fun, death, fucking and the end of it all. It is about the real.
[i] Cited from Thomas Collmar: William S. Burroughs, Exorcist des Wortes; p.19; Wenzendorf, 2011; (emphasis by Burroughs).
[ii] cf. Edmund Husserl: Cartesianische Meditationen, especially § 8. Das “ego cogito” als transzendentale Subjektivität. I don’t intend to say that Husserl meditated like the Tibetans, of course, but that there are seemingly similar observations about the phenomenal self. What conclusions that Husserl, in contrast to the Tibetans, draws, is another question.
[iii] Ray Brassier: Nihil Unbound; p. 207; London, 2007.
[iv] Martin Heidegger: Lagebeschreibung; Grundstimmung; in Heidegger Lesebuch, p. 95; edited by Günther Figal; my translation. This text is from 1929/30. In Germany at this time there was a massive break-out of postmodernity. After the Kaiser had his exit, suddenly everything was possible. The Third Reich was one possible “solution” to the postmodern truthlessness and boredom. X-buddhism faces a somewhat similar problem: It opposes the vanishing of truth with a, in this case imported, “new” hierarchy. The refusal to develop original new thought is prone to be exploited by those who do not hesitate to put to work their knowledge of the human psyche. Today this is marketing. This is not to say that marketing is the new Third Reich, but it is, rather, that marketing is unscrupulously exploiting, with the help of a lot of new thought, x-buddhism to its profit. X-buddhism is as such is not only a refusal to new thought, it is already a victim without knowing. It is easy prey to reactionary forces—especially when it refuses to engage with “worldly concerns.”
[v] Martin Heidegger: Was Heisst Denken?; p. 72; Tübingen 1997; my translation.
Matthias Steingass is the founder of the German-English language blogs Der Unbuddhist and Kritikos & Bodhi. Matthias studied math and economics. He has worked in the financial markets for the past seventeen years. Matthias has also worked as a musician (bass and sampling). In addition to his career, Matthias is currently pursuing his interests in philosophy while at the same time pursing music again, this time as a songwriter.
Matthias can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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