Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Mindfulness, Yet Again

Posted by wtpepper on April 8, 2017

Last Monday, Tricycle’s “Daily Dharma,” an email offering inspiring quotations from the magazine’s essays, contained a passage from the essay “What’s So Great About Now?” which takes a critical stance toward the popular practice of mindfulness meditation. A reader of this blog sent me a copy of the essay suggesting that I would like it, as it seemed to him to confirm my own criticism of mindfulness.

I thought I’d take a little time to respond this essay, for two reasons. First, the critique of mindfulness in this essay is absolutely not something I would agree with, and what better way to waste a rainy afternoon than one more futile attempt to clarify my own position? Second, the most common complaint I’ve heard since the first essay I ever wrote on SNB (other than that I am an obnoxious jerk, of course) is that I offer only criticism, and don’t produce a positive alternative practice; so I would like to use this essay to try, one more time (and probably, again, futilely) to explain how critique is in fact the positive practice we need to engage in every day.

In “What’s So Great About Now?”, Cynthia Thatcher argues that the common understanding that we will be happier if we just stay in the present moment is a serious error:

“The current myth among some meditation circles is that the more mindful we are, the more beauty we’ll perceive in mundane objects. To the mind with bare attention, even the suds in the dishpan—as their bubbles wink in the light—are windows on divine radiance. That’s the myth.”

Her argument is that the goal of mindfulness ought to be almost the exact opposite: to recognize how unsatisfactory absolutely every “sense-object” is, so that we might “lose all desire for them.”

It might seem, because Thatcher is critical of mindfulness, that I would agree with her position. But in fact I disagree completely with absolutely everything she says. And getting clear on the reasons for this disagreement is not an insignificant quibbling. It is, for me, the most important kind of practice we ought to engage in if we hope to reduce suffering in the world.

To begin with, I would disagree with her claim that in fact mindfulness meditation fails to make the plum sweeter or the copper kettle brighter. I would suggest that it often might do exactly this. The reason it does this, however, is not the reason it is assumed to do this by mindfulness teachers.

That is, we do not more fully or objectively experience the object in mindfulness. Rather, we incorporate the object into an ideological framework in which it is given new and more intense, often more pleasurable, (humanly constructed) meaning. The problem isn’t that we don’t get the euphoria—some people may succeed in getting this. The problem is that when it does work, it works exactly because we have succeeded in becoming more fully deluded, completely ignorant of the ideological narrative we are creating. We begin to assume this humanly created fantasy is in fact the nature of reality itself, and only so long as we can remain in this state of delusion do we get the “benefits” of mindfulness: stress reduction, states of bliss, contentment.

The exact nature of the narrative may vary, but let me offer an example to illustrate. Suppose the mindfulness practitioner believes, as all mindfulness teachers tell him, that he has an eternal and uncreated true mind that will dwell timelessly in a state of orgasmic bliss if he only escapes the trap of conceptual thought. Now, clearly this belief is a conceptual thought, so first we must become confused enough to fail to see that it is. Then we must become convinced that contemplating an object, usually something pleasant like a flower, a candle, or just our breathing, will become intensely pleasurable—but only once we say that this “pleasure” is in fact not pleasure, but beyond the duality of pleasure and displeasure. This second level of confusion is essential: it must absolutely be only pleasurable, but we must insist that if we say this pleasure is not pleasure (knowing of course that it is) we have reached the state of non-conception.

So, at this point, if the mindfulness meditator has gotten this far, he will be fairly well muddled, incapable of intelligent thought or true agency, and convinced he is in some special state. What makes him stay here, and find this unnatural state of inaction so enjoyable? Its place in a bigger narrative, the most common narrative in our culture: the story of the fall and redemption. This moment of mindless inaction is taken as evidence that we are among the chosen who, although we have fallen into this world of unhappiness, will be granted eternal bliss in the next life. And as always, such narratives works only because we are under the gaze of some important Other whose approval of us seems all important—usually the instructor, whose charismatic presence can substitute for the gaze of the mother/father/god whose approval would place us at the meaningful center of the universe.

So, the thrill at what we take to be the full and non-conceptual awareness of the copper kettle or flickering candle is in fact the complete non-awareness of the fantasy narrative we have accepted as truth.

Most times, of course, the limited enjoyment of sitting and doing nothing wears out the charismatic power of the teacher, and so most people lose interest in mindfulness after a few months. But the power of the fantasy produced in this narrative—the deeply held belief that the only true happiness is a state of changeless, effortless, eternal bliss—will remain. We will continue to fail to take action in our lives, to refuse to think, and to live lives of miserable mindless dissatisfaction…and never consider taking action, much less thinking critically, to end this situation. So, mindfulness, in further entrenching our most powerful delusion, has done its work.

But what about Thatcher’s alternative? She explains that her own experience with mindfulness led her to see every object as lacking, as dissatisfactory, because they are impermanent and lack essential nature. Isn’t this the opposite of the more popular current mindfulness practice?

My point it that, in fact, it depends on exactly the same fantasy narrative: Thatcher, as a Therevadin, is sure that she has an eternal uncreated consciousness that is, in her words, “trapped” in this dissatisfactory phenomenal world. She will gain “liberation form the dreary rounds of dukkha” and “behold the real plum—nibbana” only once she loses all interest in the world around her. The goal, then, is identical. Only instead of being guaranteed eternal bliss because we enjoy the plum, we are guaranteed bliss because we no longer enjoy anything (in her phrase, “the more we practice mindfulness, the less we’ll care”). And this is why, perversely, the lack of enjoyment of everything around us becomes so thoroughly enjoyable! It is how we know we are among the chosen.

So what would be a better alternative?

First, we need to escape the trap of the Lockean model of the subject which Thatcher calls Buddhism. Here is her account of the true Buddhist teaching:

“Each moment is composed of two parts: consciousness and one object—-not a watering can or a thimble, but an object of the mind. Consciousness is always aware of something. When a patch of azure bursts into our field of awareness, a blip of eye-consciousness sees the color. When a smell wafts toward us, another blip of consciousness knows the scent. Only mind and object; that’s all there is to it. Our entire lives are nothing but a chain of moments in which we perceive one sight, taste, smell, touch, sound, feeling, or thought after another. Outside of this process, nothing else happens.” (emphasis added)

It is important to note that for Thatcher even emotions and thoughts are just objects—they are not things we do, but things occurring in the impermanent phenomenal world over which the observing mind has no control. We are deluded into thinking we are doing things and creating concepts and causing events, but we are in fact only passive consciousnesses observing these things like shadows on a cave wall.

What could be more patently absurd than this ontology? If we accept it, we would have to agree that human actions, such as writing the essay Thatcher wrote, never actually occur at all—that in fact even her essay was just a phenomena occurring independently of “consciousness,” which her own mind was deluded into thinking was its own intentional action.

I have discussed her before the problem with using Locke’s neologism “consciousness’ to translate Buddhist concepts. I won’t repeat the argument. But it is clear enough that this floating signifier functions to support this narrative of escape from the fallen world into eternal bliss; it is not coincidental that Locke created this term at about the same time that the capitalist commodity form or money began to dominate English (and European) economic life. The idea of a absolute universal against which all concrete particulars seem unimportant is a core component of the capitalist ideology Locke was working to codify.

When we try to translate all Buddhist, or other pre-capitalist, discourse into our ubiquitous Lockean terms, we wind up with absurdities exactly like the common Western understanding of Abhidhamma ontology which Thatcher repeats. We could, perhaps, refrain from doing this facile translation, and understand that the Abhidhamma texts are saying something completely different from our ordinary way of thinking about the mind and the world, that they don’t contain a Lockean atomistic and dualistic consciousness at all. But more often, what we get is ridiculous nonsense no thinking person could accept, followed by assertions that we must not think critically about how stupid these ideas are because, as Thatcher asserts, it is what “the Buddha clearly stated.”

What if we didn’t make this error? What if, instead of believing we could see through the phenomenon to its emptiness and then move on to the eternal timeless essence, we followed another Buddhist argument. Specifically, the idea that seeing the lack of essential nature in an object is just the beginning, and the more important step is understanding that everything, including the mind, lacks essential nature. We could then begin to understand that what is most enjoyable about the copper kettle or the plum is exactly its impermanence, the possibility of change, and the opportunity for action (not just perception) this offers. As Lacan would tell us, we don’t want to make the error of the non-duped; we don’t want to see that our perceptions are constructed, and then draw the mistaken conclusion that they are therefore not real. This is like a person who believes that since the brick wall is a temporary construct she can walk through it.

What we wind up with is quite different. Because we need to focus on the assumed narratives and ideologies that mindfulness works so hard to get us to ignore. But more than that, we would probably be less enamored of a flower or a cup of tea than we would of the ability to take actions in the world.

Actions in the world are always given meaning, and made enjoyable, by the ideologies which inform them. And the task becomes to avoid denying that we construct those ideologies. We could then recognize that we can change them if the kinds of actions they generate produce suffering for ourselves or other human beings (not matter how remote from us, how indirectly caused, that suffering might be). Determining whether we are producing any such suffering becomes integral to any “spiritual” practice. We would be less mindful of objects, and more aware of actions and ideologies.

Thatcher, just as the mindfulness practitioners she critiques, believes devoutly in a dualistic world, in a transcendent and eternal self. She has the advantage, at least, of admitting openly that she does believe this, while most mindfulness teachers deny this even while they continue to insist on it.

My position, what I have called full-strength anatman, insists there is no such thing. 
We are just as impermanent as every object around us. It is this that enables us to change in ways that can produce enjoyment right here and now in this life, not in some future state of transcendent escape.

Maybe I have helped clear up some misunderstanding about my critique of mindfulness (although this blog is not terribly active, I still get emails about this once a week or so). I most emphatically do not believe that mindfulness doesn’t “work”; it does work very well—it is just that it does not do what its proponents claim, and what it does do is something best avoided.

Perhaps this can also serve as a kind of example of a positive kind of practice: the thorough critique of essays such as this, which might seem true and convincing at first, is what we must always continue to do. This is the practice, because if we don’t do this, we are stuck in error, and can’t hope to take any real action in the world (in fact, we may continue to believe that taking action is undesirable).

I know that what most American Buddhists mean by positive practice is something like this: a technique that will give, or promise, states of effortless euphoric bliss. And that is exactly the error I hope to remove: there are no such states. Enjoyment comes only from effortful engagement in the world! Certainly, I don’t offer any specific ideological practice into which we all ought to be interpellated (yes, that Althusserian terminology again), but I won’t do this for a simple reason: there can be no single correct one. There may be infinite ideologies we can engage in without causing suffering to others. The goal is to first get rid of the idea that we can live without an ideology, that we ought to be detached from our ideologies. And almost everyone is far too quick to assume they have reached this point—too quick to believe they have “seen through” all ideologies, while they have not yet begun to notice their most deeply held assumptions.

Only once we succeed in reaching this awareness of ideologies can begin the task of producing enjoyable attachment to actions, rather than objects, knowing full well they are impermanent, socially constructed, and corrigible.

Maybe start with the creation of a new socialist party?

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Philosophical Concepts for Thinking

Posted by Glenn Wallis on March 13, 2017

Time to Register!seminar

Our next seminar begins April 5.

Philosophical Concepts for Thinking

Hannah Arendt famously condemned Adolf Eichmann not for being an inhuman monster who methodically arranged Nazi death camp logistics. No, she condemned him for being all-too-human in his refusal or inability to think. Are we thinking today? This seminar is a kind of smorgasbord of concepts from western philosophy that are aimed at enhancing our capacity for incisive and expansive thought. We will read extracts from, for example, Hannah Arendt, Gilles Deleuze, Georg Hegel, François Laruelle, Jacques Lacan, Alenka Zupančič, and Peter Sloterdijk.

Our lively discussions are serious yet relaxed, challenging yet fun.

If you are in the Philadelphia area, please consider joining us! And please help spread the word.

Time: Wednesdays, 6pm-8:30pm
Dates: April 5-May 3 (five sessions)
Location: CultureWorks, 1315 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Cost: $195
Instructor: Glenn Wallis

Go here to register

Two reduced rate scholarships are available. See FAQs.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions at inciteseminars@mail.com

inciteseminars

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Buddhofascism: B. Alan Wallace, for instance

Posted by Glenn Wallis on February 11, 2017

buddhistswastikaBelow is a reposting of Tom Pepper’s essay “Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.” But first, an explanation.

Last night I was reading Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic for a section of my book, Critique of Western Buddhism (see my previous post, “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing.”)

Then, this morning I read an article in the New York Times on how Trump’s “ideological guru,” Steve Bannon, has an affinity for the ideas of the Italian figure Julius Evola (1898-1974). Evola was a proponent of what is known as Traditionalism.  (Links at bottom.) Very briefly, Traditionalism is closely aligned with Perennial Philosophy’s belief that  all humanity shares a transcendental unity via the “brightly shining… unconditioned… pristine awareness” (115) that is our “primordial consciousness,” which “transcends all conceptual frameworks” (24). So, given that this glorious “ground of becoming” (102) is our birthright, why isn’t humanity basking in “an eternal, timeless bliss, or nirvana” (47)? Goddamn modernism and materialism, that’s why. The Traditionalist’s task thus becomes one of “breaking the ideological chains of materialism that shackle the minds of scientists and the modern world at large” (239). It is not difficult to see why Traditionalism had a love affair with the far right wing parties of Europe, old, neo(-Nazi), and Nouvelle(-Droite).

Anyway, as I was reading the piece on Evola, my thoughts kept turning to B. Alan Wallace. Maybe it had something to do with passages about how Evola, in his book The Revolt Against the Modern World, “cast materialism as an eroding influence on ancient values,” as the Times article says. Maybe it had to do with Evola, Bannon, and Wallace’s shared, seemingly insatiable yearning for the reestablishment of a transcendent moral order that would, among other cataclysmic ends, “restore meaning to the universe” (72). Maybe it has to do with the fact that every single one of these quotes (with page numbers) is a quote not from a right-wing Traditionalist, but from Wallace’s book. Yes, Wallace’s views graft seamlessly onto fascist-aligned totalitarian Traditionalist thought.

Before allowing myself such a drastic conclusion, I did some research. I visited Mark Sedgwick’s blog. He’s quoted in the Times piece, and rightly so; he seems to be the leading scholarly authority on Traditionalism. Much to my pleasure, Sedgwick refers to Richard K. Payne’s article, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism.” So, I read that article. It is a tour de force. Every practicing Buddhist should read it. Payne’s article was no doubt timely and relevant when it was published in 2008. But it is even more so today. The article is rich in lines of thought and conclusions to be drawn for the identity of Western Buddhism and of Western Buddhist subjectivity. The one that I want to mention here is this: much of contemporary Western Buddhism (as well as its Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies scholarship) is deeply implicated in the anti-rationalist “experience fundamentalism” that it shares with the Romantic strains of Traditionalism. Given that such “experience,” as a Buddhist-Traditionalist rhetorical trope, is invariably presented as “inherently veridical, and to be epistemologically privileged” (Payne, 180, 182), the path to a kind of totalitarianism of thought, to a hierarchical institutionalized authoritarianism, is cleared.

Wallace looms yet again. This time as a Buddhist St. Paul, an uncompromising evangelist, declaring the good news of the all-seeing Buddha’s epoch-making “contemplative revolution” (147).

Given the advent of Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), and so on, the term “fascism” is no longer a mere pejorative: it has reverted back to its role as a legitimate cultural-political descriptor. My point here is not, of course, that Wallace is fascist in the way that a violent brown-shirted thug is. I don’t know Wallace personally. My point is that his text (via his “Buddhism,” Dzogchen,” and this and that mostly Tibetan teacher) has resonances in contemporary fascist thought. I am suggesting that we may find in Wallace the same kind of unconscious (?) collusion with a cultural-political-spiritual fascist ideology that we find with, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn in relation to neoliberalism or Stephen Batchelor in relation to a neo-Orientalist colonialism.

At the very least, Wallace’s Buddhism may be akin to Christofascism, which is to say, it is comprised of a veneer of spiritualized, cosmic meaning-making lain over a functionally totalitarian and apocalyptic traditionalist ideology. Spiritualized apocalyptic thought, whether of the New Age or Traditionalist variety, involves beliefs about the end times of the old world and the coming of a new world. This new world is augured not by collective social action but by some sort of “contemplative revolution,” by, in Wallace’s terms, “liberating people from a state of unknowing (agnostics) to becoming knowers (gnostics) of ultimate reality” (147).

Anyway, the final step of my research led me back to this blog, and to Tom Pepper’s essay. He uses different language. His argument is cool and reasoned. Still, a careful reader will not fail to notice that it’s all in there.

The age of Western Buddhist innocence has passed. What comes next?

[NOTE: Pepper’s essay first appeared under the post title “Feast, Interrupted.” Have a look at the 94 comments to get the full force of the original discussion.]

—Glenn Wallis


Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

By Tom Pepper

By any measure, we would have to acknowledge that B. Alan Wallace is a major player in Western Buddhism. In the last eight years he started the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, published nine books, and is engaged in the International Shamatha Project. He has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a stint as a Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. He has created himself as the leading authority on the relationship between Western science and Buddhism. His latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (a title that would seem to have been chosen to invite comparison with Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) is subtitled “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” The book sets out to argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can contribute to the scientific study of the mind, which is currently running hard down a dead-end in its attempts to map the mind onto neural activity. Along the way, Wallace argues against a reductive, materialist philosophy of science, and for a particular version of Tibetan Buddhism, as the correct way to finally understand human consciousness.

I first came across Wallace’s work many years ago, with a book called Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (the word “contemplative” was changed to “Buddhist” in later editions, apparently for marketing purposes). I picked up the book because as a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science, I thought perhaps Wallace was going to get beyond the popular misrepresentation of quantum theory that says that we “create” a particle by observing it. I was hoping he might be trying to demonstrate that both Buddhism and quantum physics could be understood from a realist perspective. That is, I thought he was going to choose reality; instead, Read the rest of this entry »

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Slogging Through Buddhist Writing

Posted by Glenn Wallis on January 24, 2017

spiritual-bypassingI have a favor to ask readers of this blog. First, let me procrastinate.

When Freud published his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, casual readers must have been sorely disappointed. The book appeared during “one of the most significant moments in the history of ideas on dreams” (Lusty and Groth, 10). Books on dreams and dream interpretation had been proliferating at an extraordinary rate for decades already. The ideas emanating from these books, moreover, were finding their way into fields ranging from the fine arts to the hard sciences. The period from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, in short, witnessed “the unprecedented interest in dream writing and interpretation in the psychological sciences and the migration of these ideas into a wide range of cultural disciplines and practices” (Lusty and Groth, 10). The bulk of these books, often first serialized in popular magazines, however, offered the same kind of simplistic revelatory, predictive pseudo-knowledge and facile moral guidance as today’s popular dream guides. Indeed, as he complained to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, Freud detested having to read through even the much more limited literature on dreams by serious writers such as Aristotle and contemporary scientists: “If one only didn’t have to read, too! The little literature there is already disgusts me so much.” Slogging through dream studies, he griped, was “a horrible punishment” (Gay, 106).

We might wonder, then, why Freud chose such a personally unappealing topic, one that attracted a decidedly undiscerning audience. We might find an answer in his opening salvo, where he immediately obliterates all pretense to easy consolation and even easier solutions to life’s vicissitudes—the very stuff that the average reader would have expected from a book with the title Interpretation of Dreams.

In this volume I have attempted to expound the methods and results of dream-interpretation; and in so doing I do not think I have overstepped the boundary of neuro-pathological science. For the dream proves on psychological investigation to be the first of a series of abnormal psychic formations, a series whose succeeding members—the hysterical phobias, the obsessions, the delusions—must, for practical reasons, claim the attention of the physician.

What forbidding and nasty-sounding words: pathological, abnormal, hysterical, obsession, delusion! And what dark omen of the real this physician portends!

Working on A Critique of Western Buddhism,  I feel an affinity to the Freud of Interpretation of Dreams. I, too, find it unbearable yet necessary to read Western Buddhist writing. (I know that sounds uncharitable. But it is true.) I also see an astonishing parallel. Like Freud with his dream material, I still hold out that there is something there that just may advance productive thought, thought that enables us to progress toward what Marx calls our real and sensuous interests. But I might be dreaming.

This leads me to the purpose of this post, namely to get your recommendations on which authors, living or dead, constitute a representative selection of contemporary Western Buddhism?  More specifically, which authors do you see as the most consequential thinkers on what I am calling x-buddhist first names for the real: impermanence (anicca); no-self (anatman); suffering (dukkha); emptiness (śūnyatā); dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda); wisdom (prajñā); things as they are (yathābhuta); and liberation (nirvāṇa)?

I have my own ideas. But I am curious to hear what others think.

It will be impossible to disable the common Western Buddhist strategy for deflecting criticism, namely, the appeal to exception. The appeal to exception, come to think of it, fits in well at the dawn of the Trump era:”your example is irrelevant because my teacher/text/sangha/mind offers an alternative meaning.”

So, please, suggest away!

____________

Sources

Natalya Lusty and Helen Groth, Dreams and Modernity: A Cultural History  (London: Routledge, 2013).

Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1998).

Posted in Constructivists, Critics | Tagged: | 52 Comments »

Incite Seminars

Posted by Glenn Wallis on December 30, 2016

inciteseminarsI am launching a new project in Philadelphia called Incite Seminars. It will consist of mainly 6-week, 15-hour courses on what I feel are crucial and timely topics. The emphasis is on the humanities; so, we will explore material, old and new, from philosophy, literature, psychoanalysis, theology, and beyond.

I am inviting other educators to join me. I am also talking to several activists organizations about creating a humanities course for historically underserved communities (something along the lines of the Harlem Clemente program). Please contact me with any ideas or interests you may have.

For now, I am kicking it off with the following seminar:

Critical Introduction to Buddhist Thought

Buddhism is enjoying great popularity in the West. This is not surprising. Buddhist thought, after all, claims to offer wise insight into many of the weighty matters that concern us today. This seminar will explore foundational Buddhist ideas. It will, however, do so critically. That is, we will also be asking whether or not Buddhist thought is up to the task of stimulating meaningful personal and social change here and now.

Time: Wednesday evenings, 6-8:30pm, February 15-March 22.
Place: CultureWorks, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 320, Philadelphia, PA 19107
Cost: $195

You can find more information at my website. Here’s the Facebook page.

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, please consider joining us. It is sure to be lively and stimulating. Thanks!

 

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Criticism Matters

Posted by Glenn Wallis on December 14, 2016

handbookI contributed the chapter below to Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes. Adam Burke, Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement (Basel: Springer Publishing, 2016) (link at bottom). It’s a big book, 500+ pages, with over 30 contributors. Many of those contributors will be familiar to readers of this blog; for example, David Loy, Richard Payne, Ronald Purser, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. I find the new, but obviously well-informed, voices, such as Zack Walsh, Per Drougge, and Edwin Ng, and many others, refreshing. I applaud the editors for their unorthodox group of contributors.

The title may give the impression that this is yet another of the proliferating paeans to the mindfulness industry or a How-To book. The book’s five parts reveal, however, that it’s up to something else:

Part I: Between Tradition and Modernity
Part II: Neoliberal Mindfulness Versus Critical Mindfulness
Part III: Genealogies of Mindfulness-Based Interventions
Part IV: Mindfulness as Critical Pedagogy
Part V: Commentary

As the first sentence of the Preface says, “This volume is a critical inquiry into the meaning of mindfulness today.” From my first perusal of the book, it seems that the degree of criticism varies from curry mild to habanero hot. Some pieces seem to be not at all critical; but I’ll have to take a closer look. In any case, the book should augur a new phase in the reception of mindfulness in the West. Let me know if you would like to review the book for this blog.

The final Part consists of only two chapters: Rick Repetti’s, “Meditation Matters: Replies to the Anti-McMindfulness Bandwagon!” and my “Criticism Matters: A Response to Rick Repetti.” As I understand it, the editors invited Repetti to offer a mindfulness-friendly voice to the overall critical tone of the volume. They then decided that his response itself merited a reply. And so they asked me to do so. Repetti’s background is philosophy. His chapter is over twenty pages long. Obviously, I couldn’t summarize or respond to his piece in its entirety; but there should still be some tasty pickins on the plate.

Criticism Matters: A Response to Rick Repetti

Glenn Wallis

Rick Repetti has written a lengthy, somewhat sprawling, rebuttal to four criticisms leveled against contemporary “mindfulness.” I offer here my reaction to his text in the form of reader response criticism. I’m not using “reader response” in its technical sense. I just mean to convey that I will not be commenting on each of his complicated meanderings or analyzing his copious analogies or dissecting his various examples. That would be too much. I will instead read through his text, pause at those points that strike me as salient, and then offer my more or less spontaneous response to them.

The [W]hole

To begin, I have some comments about the piece as a whole. As I read the synopsis I found myself questioning the viability of Repetti’s overall argument.  That is, I had to wonder whether he was making the right refutations. By “right” I mean refutations that other defenders of contemporary mindfulness would find necessary and significant. To be more specific, would other refuters of the so-called McMindfulness critique concur that the four objections that Repetti singles out for treatment are indeed the decisive issues to be addressed?  If not, what would be the point of responding to his defense of these objections? Mindfulness proponents would simply dismiss my response as an irrelevant straw man argument, even if the straw man was fashioned by one of their own. On reflection, two things occurred to me. First, I have in fact come across these four objections elsewhere, in both formal and informal settings. So, I do think that Repetti is addressing criticisms that mindfulness proponents deem worthy of refutation. Second, it occurred to me that my response will all but certainly be accused of being a flimsy straw man attack anyway. Whether they are aware of it or not, mindfulness proponents are fast gaining the reputation of being people who are less than fully open to the full force of the criticism leveled against them. They employ various rhetorical strategies for evading the brunt of some critical point. It would be a useful project for someone to chart and analyze these strategies. I was considering whether I should take that approach here; namely, present a kind of rhetorical criticism of mindfulness. Then it occurred to me: Repetti’s piece is valuable not because it defends mindfulness against certain objections, but because it exudes the very spirit of the mindfulness community’s engagement with criticism tout court. Along the way, Repetti’s piece exhibits two stock mindfulness rhetorical responses to criticism. I call these two responses respectively conceptual shape-shifting and covert idealism. I’ll say more about each of these strategies below. The point I am making here is that Repetti’s piece is instructive because it performs the rabbit hole that is “mindfulness.”
Read the rest of this entry »

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Althusser Today

Posted by Glenn Wallis on November 15, 2016

If anyone in the Philadelphia area is interested, I’ll be driving to Princeton for this roundtable. Send me an email. Bosteels is the author of The Actuality of Communism and the translator of Badiou’s Theory of the Subject.althusserevent

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Writing With Pencils and Eating Brownies: What Can Enlightened Brains Do?

Posted by wtpepper on September 30, 2016

Fifteen years ago there was a documentary series on HBO called Kindergarten.  The show diylab500x309followed a group of kids in the course of their school year, filming their interactions until they became almost oblivious to the cameras.  In one episode, a girl is showing her classmates something she wrote.  One classmate, apparently amazed at her friend’s ability to write, asks “How do you write those words?”  The girl replies simply “I used a pencil.”

Clearly this doesn’t answer the question intended, but it does in one sense answer the question asked.

Part of my argument here will be that the advocates of a biological account of the mind are using the same kind of response as this little girl. However, while she simply didn’t understand that her classmates couldn’t write as well as her yet and so misunderstood the question, they ignore the real problem, refuse to understand the question, and then claim they have provided an answer.  What they offer is an explanation of something (the girl really did use a pencil to write the words), but not one that says anything about the real problem they have pretended to solve.  Neurological accounts of things like enlightenment, or of thought in general, simply offer up an account of one of the efficient causes of the thing in question; this is not much different from explaining that I wrote this by tapping keys on a computer, and just asserting that accounts for things like how I arrived at the meaning I am attempting to convey.

Furthermore, I am going to suggest that in the case of what I will call the reductivist version of x-buddhism, this evasion serves to produce a pernicious kind of neoliberal ideology.  Among these reductivists I would include the advocates of mindfulness as well as all of those who suggest that Buddha was in some way a neuroscientist, or that Buddhist teachings are borne out by neuroscience, or that enlightenment is in some way a brain state dependent on some kind of neuroplasticity. All of those who believe we can reduce enlightenment (or happiness, or contentment, or awakening) to the level of bodily processes (neurons firing or sensory perceptions or feelings of comfort) are asking their followers to believe something false about the world, because that false belief is integral to the neoliberal ideology they hope to produce, and to profit from.

In part, my response was motivated by the recent release of Shinzen Young’s Book The Science of Enlightenment. However, I will use this book only as an example of the pervasive mistaken assumptions common to the reductivist x-buddhists. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Constructivists, Critics | Tagged: , , | 53 Comments »

On the Liberating Force of Non-Buddhism

Posted by Glenn Wallis on September 24, 2016

Screenshot 2016-09-02 at 5.18.51 PMUPDATE: I recently did a couple of interviews with Matthew O’Connell at the Imperfect Buddha podcast. Skype has its drawbacks as a format for conversation. I suppose that’s pretty ironic, given that conversation is the sole purpose for Skype. In any case, Matthew does an admirable job of guiding the conversation into interesting places, and of fostering dialogue. I wonder if thatgenuine dialogueis what’s missing from Western Buddhist practice today.

Heartfelt thanks to Matthew for taking the time and trouble of working through the non-buddhism material. If, doing so, he has come to recognize the practical and theoretical value of our work for contemporary Western Buddhism, maybe others will as well.


Matthew O’Connell and Stuart Baldwin have a lively, humorous, and insightful discussion of non-buddhism at the Soundcloud podcast Imperfect Buddha.

It’s heartening to listen to a discussion of our project by two intelligent and informed people. Thanks to Matthew and Stuart for putting in what must have been a considerable amount of time and effort to engage with Speculative Non-Buddhist ideas. We appreciate it.

If the listener takes away only one of the many fine points that Matthew and Stuart make, may it be the one about non-buddhism as a productive practice.

Here’s the description from Matthew’s blog Post-traditional BuddhismRead the rest of this entry »

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Review of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 24, 2016


Nothing2Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism
. By Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

By James M. Cochran, Baylor University*

Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton open Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism claiming that their book is nothing: “So much nothing, so little time. This is a book made of nothings: with a smile and a quizzical frown, let us talk about nothing” (1). Yet, their book is also about something—a lot of “somethings,” often competing and in tension with each other’s something. Boon’s essay, “To Live in a Glass House is a Revolutionary Virtue Par Excellence: Marxism, Buddhism, and the Politics of Nonalignment,” begins the collection, looking at the ideologies and political dimensions of Buddhism. Next, in “Enlightenment, Revolution, Cure: The Problem of Praxis and the Radical Nothingness of the Future,” Cazdyn argues for a reclamation project to save the radical force of Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Finally, Morton concludes the collection with “Buddhaphobia: Nothingness and the Fear of Things, an essay examining modernity’s cultural anxiety surrounding Buddhism. While these essays cover three distinct topics, taken together, they represent a serious and significant engagement with critical theory and Buddhism.

Nothing attempts to fill a gap in critical theory, which, in Boon, Cazdyn, and Morton’s accounts, has largely disregarded or ill-treated Buddhism. According to the three authors, contemporary philosophy and theory have witnessed a “Christian turn,” but there has been no equal “Buddhist turns.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Critics | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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