Behold the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism
Posted by Glenn Wallis on February 22, 2014
This post is intended for readers who are, or would like to try, applying non-buddhist methods to actual x-buddhist materials (texts, dharma talks, rituals, etc.). I am providing user instructions for a particular weapon in the arsenal of the critique: the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism.1 I will offer a concrete example of this principle as it was employed by triratna-buddhist blogger Jayarava in a recent exchange with Tomek Idzik. This exchange took place at Jayarava’s Raves. (Link below.)
My contention is this. In his refusal to engage Idzik’s counter-argument to a point he must establish to advance his claims, Jayarava employs the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism. (You’ll see the Principle invoked, obliquely, throughout all of Jayarava’s writings, but directly, albeit in his own terms, in the final paragraph.) The point of this exercise is not to chastise Jayarava for being the poor and unfair interlocutor that he is here. I want to make a much bigger point:
The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism is the worm at the heart of x-buddhist dialogue. In fact, it is even more insidious than that: it is the primary determinant in how x-buddhists think– or “think,” since it is a debilitating force, a force that voids thought. Where thought is absent, genuine dialogue is impossible.
The wide application of the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism in x-buddhist writing and speech is tantamount to an admission by x-buddhists to the bankruptcy of x-buddhism–but let me be quick to add: in their hands.
If there were no Principle of Sufficient Buddhism, no such conceptual and dialogical operator, it is doubtful whether x-buddhism would exist at all. Why? Because uncoupled from the Principle, x-buddhists would not be able to hold x-buddhist ideas and practices together. X-buddhism would not cohere. Ideally, thus dissipated, x-buddhist postulates, all vitality lost, would slouch, one by one, over to The Great Feast of Knowledge.2 What would happen to them there? Would they be revitalized? Would they invigorate thought? Would they enhance local knowledges and thereby gain respect?
We cannot know what might happen because x-buddhists, as x-buddhists, refuse our invitation. They detest the democratic ways of the mob. They must at all costs protect x-buddhism’s aristocratic regency.
Try it. I predict that if you insist on laying the Principle to the side, your x-buddhist conversation partner with not be able to cope. S/he will attempt various maneuvers. An early maneuver will be to rattle off copious details–citations from the Buddha, from the sutras, from Buddhist history, from roshi, Eido, Joan and Jon. To every one of your objections, s/he will either recite yet more details or say that you are creating a strawman argument. Another maneuver will be to remind you that examples from the western history of ideas are irrelevant, they just don’t apply to timeless eastern wisdom (even though their dharmic claims are, so they say, universal). Your views will be characterized as being “incomprehensible.” A late maneuver, probably the final one, will be to accuse you of being angry, of lacking compassion and insight, of being wholly ignorant of the virtues of right-speech. In fact, your insistence on laying aside the Principle of Sufficient Buddhism will be given as a living example of why we need right speech.
Don’t take my word for it. Give it a shot. Start a conversation with an x-buddhist figure of your choice. A couple of things to keep in mind.
Non-buddhism, remember, is an immanent critique. It aims to show that and how x-buddhism, in the hands of x-buddhists, contradicts, restricts, and outright violates its very own postulates. In other words, non-buddhism is not arguing that x-buddhism is wrong. It is, rather, arguing that x-buddhism, as x-buddhists present it, does not cohere in the way that it must in order to be what it says it is: specular knowledge, or “wisdom” concerning matters of ultimate importance to human being. In other words, x-buddhists understand themselves to be in possession of a comprehensive, phenomenologically verifiable organon from on high of “how things are.” On their own account, x-buddhism functions not as religion or philosophy do, but as science does. They claim for it the same kind of knowledge that science generates. Whether their object of investigation is human consciousness, perception, matter, time, or the cosmos, x-buddhists present the insights of x-buddhism as being as clear, precise, unambiguous, testable, empirical, and pragmatic as those of a science.
Is any given x-buddhism what its acolytes say it is? Or might it be, when all is said and done, just another variety of generic visionary knowledge, hardly distinguishable from Integralism, Quantum Mysticism, or Roman Catholicism? In the 21st century West, numerous x-buddhisms offer utopian refuge from the brutal barrage of techno-consumerist capitalism. These recent varieties show a striking family resemblance to the American self-improvement and self-actualization movements beginning in the 1890s, and the human potential movement of the 1960s.
The question for the critic is: what happens when we subject x-buddhist postulates to robust investigation? Does the x-buddhist account satisfy us? What happens when we invite our x-buddhist conversation partner to join us at The Great Feast of Knowledge? Is the invitation viewed as a threat. a hostile challenge? Does the conversation then mutate into a defensive slug fest? Does the x-buddhist change the subject? These are the kinds of things a critic has an eye out for..
And now, to our main attraction.
Tomek Idzik: Jayarava, thanks for this interesting piece. I agree with you, that MBT is not explicitly touted as an alternative or competitor to Buddhism. But I think that this emerging “folk religion”, as McMahan says, is not just a set of stress reduction techniques helping people with chronic pain. It is also another manifestation of this romantic reaction against scientific disenchantment of the world. In short, it is a cult of a fetishized “Present Moment”. What it tries to sell is the “Now.” The same “Now,” of which Metzinger says in his BNO as follows: “Although we subjectively experience ourselves as in direct and immediate contact with the <>, all empirical data tell us that, strictly speaking, all conscious experience is a form of memory.”
I would also add that this cult of the “Now” is a bastardized version of the twentieth century phenomenologists effort to, as in The Making … says McMahan, “reclaim things from their merely instrumental value (…) to reestablish the primordial intimacy between persons and objects in their everyday interactions. (p. 220)
So all in all, on the first sight it might really look that it is not “an alternative or competitor to Buddhism” but at a closer inspection it seems to provide a much more suited myth of a this worldly liberation than a transcendental Buddhists version of it which is unimaginable for a lay person today.
Jayarava: Hi Tomek
Thanks for your comment. Anyone who quotes Metzinger is always welcome :-)
I’d just say that for a “folk religion” mindfulness has a shit load of scientific papers backing it up. Nearly 6000 on PlosOne! So to me “folk religion” is a kind of bitchy diminutive designed to plaster over an inconvenient truth.
I’m not sure where you get all this “cult of now” stuff from. I know quite a few mindfulness teachers and that’s not what they’re on about as far as I can tell. I don’t know anyone who fetishises “now”. Most of the Mindfulness people are plugged into Metzinger or at least Damasio who popularised the idea on the basis of his research. They know these models of consciousness. But remember that Metzinger is arguing against phenomenology most of the time: he says we are naive realists and that how things seem is not how they are. This is interesting, but most of the time we only have access to how things seem and even with close attention we don’t see through the walls of the ego tunnel. Indeed Metzinger says this is impossible – he only knows more from studying the way that the sense of self breaks down. By carefully cross referencing all the errors of the self-model he can define it’s dimensions and functions, but he still cannot see beyond it in his own first-person experience. Whatever consciousness is in fact, we only know how we experience it. And this was the Buddha’s point in the first place. Especially in my root text the Kaccānagotta Sutta.
The approach of examining experience is very much older than the 20th century. McMahan is in danger of sounding like a man whose only tool is a hammer: everything starts to look like a nail. Examining experience is the technique par excellence of Buddhism. Such a phenomenological approach is central to all of early Buddhism and is epitomised by the Abhidharmikas. To say this is just a modern trend is to be ignorant of Buddhist history. There is Buddhism in Buddhist Modernism.
My preceptor and chief mentor in the Triratna Order now teaches mindfulness for a living. He and his wife cannot run enough classes in their area. And in each class there is one person who finds all this ‘watching your experience’ stuff really fascinating and wants to go deeper. So they have a little sangha building up of people fascinated by experience instead of bogged down in all the supernatural bullshit and top heavy doctrine that comes with Buddhism. My sense is that this is the future of Buddhism (which probably contradicts what I said above, but such is life).
Mindfulness as taught by Buddhist MBT practitioners may well be to 21st century Western Buddhism what Zen was to Japanese Buddhism in the 13th century.
Tomek Idzik: Jayarava, if you are really interested to know where I get the whole idea of this “cult of now” have a look at this paper (link below) and compare the ubiquitous element of the so called “present moment” in the rhetorics of mindfulness movement to what one of the main figures of this text – W. Sellars – dubbed “the myth of the given.” I claim that those “present moment” or “here and now” memes are just a vulgarized versions of the “myth of the given” or better “unexplained explainer” which was a symptom of a reaction against naturalism and science that came out from the camp of XX century phenomenologists/idealists like Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and others. In the paper Brassier writes that “the myth of the given [is] the idealist attempt to ground ‘originary’ intentionality in transcendental consciousness. Consciousness construed as originary condition of givenness becomes an unexplained explainer. This brand of transcendental idealism is inimical to naturalism, since if consciousness is the originary condition of objectivation, of which science is one instance, it follows that science cannot investigate consciousness.” (p. 9) This transcendental consciousness and its folk versions like “present moment” or “here and now,” etc., become contemporary fetishes – weak versions of the soul – that provide their worshipers a safe haven from the potentially depressing conclusions of contemporary science. Hence the crypto-religious flavor of the “cult of now”.
[GW. Link edited: Ray Brassier, "The View from Nowhere: Sellars, Habermas, Metzinger"]
Of course one can read it that way. Or one can take a Buddhist perspective. Not being educated in Western philosophy I don’t see the parallels from that sphere. I don’t even see them as particularly important as the influence on Eastern thinking begins to be syncretised by those very thinkers and it confuses the issues. But I certainly do see people teaching Buddhist ideas.
I think we’ll just have to agree to differ on this.
Original post and comments at Jayarava Raves.
1Principle of sufficient Buddhism. Parallel to Laruelle’s “Principle of Sufficient Philosophy,” which states that everything is philosophizable. X-buddhistic decision is similarly a pretension of that mechanism’s creators (i.e., x-buddhists) that all things under the sun are matters for x-buddhism’s oracular pronouncements, and that the totality of pronouncements (the network of postulation) constitutes an adequate account—a unitary vision—of reality. “Buddhism” thus names, for “Buddhists,” a sufficiency. As postulate deflation reveals, however, this view of sufficiency is maintained only insofar as x-buddhism successfully avoids conversing with the sciences and humanities at The Great Feast of Knowledge. This avoidance amounts to a myopia whereby Buddhism only appears sufficient. This appearance, given the blighted field of reality that it entails, amounts to buddhistic hallucination, whereby “the x-buddhist view of Y” is confused with—seen in place of—“Y.” (Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, 138)
2 The Great Feast of Knowledge. X-buddhistic decision is a specular court of justice that rules from above. Its representatives include, for instance, Enlightenment, Compassion, Suffering, Delusion, Mindfulness. Consideration of any of these representatives devoid of the royal warrant provided by decision reveals these representatives to be, as buddhistically presented, unfit, unusable, unreliable, and even suspect, characters. For, deflation acts to make manifest the representatives’ display of self-importance, necessity, obviousness, assumed desirability, pretense to natural truthfulness, etc. Speculative non-buddhism escorts x-buddhism’s representatives to the Great Feast of Knowledge. Seated at the table there, the representatives must hold their own alongside of local knowledges such as art, philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, physics, and so on. From a speculative non-buddhist estimation, the x-buddhist representatives, devoid of their dharmic body guards (the network of postulation), lose all status in such an exchange. That status, founded on the specularity given in decision, is thereby deflated. Sitting at the Great Feast of Knowledge radically alters the contribution of x-buddhism’s representatives. (I hear art and evolutionary biology, for instance, holding forth passionately on the absolute necessity and glorious fruits of one of x-buddhism’s foremost undesirables, “delusion,” to take but a single instance). (Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice, 135-136)