Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

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, his book made a case for idealism, and argued that we choose reality. In the process, he misrepresented contemporary physics and showed a startling lack of knowledge of recent developments in the philosophy of science. I didn’t pay him much attention after that, but given his flurry of recent books, I thought it might be worth reconsidering exactly what his project really is.

In responding to this book, then, I have no intention of debating his take on Buddhism. I intend to take a thoroughly exterior, non-buddhist approach in responding to Wallace’s presentation of Buddhism. I do, in fact, disagree with some of his statements about Buddhism generally, but I am not interested in seeking the “true” Buddhism here. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, and I am confident that Wallace knows quite a bit about it. I will assume that his representation of Tibetan Buddhism is accurate. What I am interested in here is simply considering, from a non-buddhist perspective, the social and ideological implications of Wallace’s version of Buddhism. If we all accepted this version of Buddhism as true, and all began practicing it, what would that mean for us?

I will not give Wallace the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to his discussions of Western science and philosophy. In this realm, I will point out the errors and misrepresentations, the sophistries and false dilemmas, and the false conclusions resulting from his limited knowledge of contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science. My aim here, however, is the same: my interest is again in considering the social and ideological project he has marshaled this wealth of pseudo-science and sophistry to promote.

I also want to begin with a few points on which I absolutely agree with Wallace. I point these out to make it clear that I think his goals are often (not always) goals that I share; it is my argument, however, that his ideas on how to reach these goals are terribly problematic, and that his philosophical assumptions can only hinder his project.

For one thing, it would be wonderful if more people understood, as Wallace points out quite clearly (pp. 177-179), that mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not at all the same thing as mindfulness in the Western mental-health industry. Despite the frequent claims that it is a concept adopted from Buddhism, mindfulness in the various “mindfulness-based” therapies has little to do with the concept of sati. Wallace also makes clear that absolute acceptance of whatever comes into our minds is not the typical Buddhist approach; instead, Buddhist have traditionally been very keen on controlling what goes on in the mind, to eliminate the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Vipashyana (vipassana) does not mean, Wallace reminds us (pp. 204-206), accepting the mind as it is, but learning to shape it into something better.

Finally, and most importantly, I absolutely agree with Wallace that the reductive materialist attempts to map the mind onto the neurological activity of the brain is a mistake, a dead end, that will prevent any real progress both in philosophical considerations of consciousness and in psychology. The mind, I will argue, is neither concomitant with the brain, nor is it an epiphenomenon. However, I will completely disagree with how he seeks to avoid reductive materialism. To adumbrate my conclusions here, I will briefly discuss the problem of free will, and Wallace’s solution to this seemingly endless debate.

At first it seemed puzzling to me that Wallace would end the first part of his book with a chapter on “achieving free will,” as the Western concept of “will” has always seemed to be irrelevant to Buddhist thought. However, this chapter reveals the reason for Wallace’s appeal to the radical empiricism of William James, for his overly simplistic version of modern philosophy of science, and shows us what the goal of his version of Buddhism ultimately will turn out to be.  Wallace presents us with a version of Buddhism that seeks to uncover, through spiritual practice, a “brightly shining mind” that is unborn, eternal, and exists “in every being,” although “veiled by adventitious defilements” (115). The “conceptual mind,” which is conventional and impermanent, cannot access this “realm of consciousness,” but the “brightly shining mind” can “influence the minds of ordinary sentient beings” (115) in ways that are “beyond the realm of philosophy” (116). Our greater freedom, it seems, is achieved by removing the defilements, conventional accretions inhibiting the ability of the pure consciousness to subtly and imperceptibly influence the conventional mind. He presents us, then, with the very definition of an atman: an abiding deep self, uncreated by causes and conditions, permanently existing, unchangeable, and alone capable of true and complete bliss.  (Of course, Wallace says this is not an atman at all, but simply asserting that it is not an atman does not make it any less of one.)  My argument will be that Wallace’s attempt to resuscitate James’s radical empiricism, his misrepresentation of quantum theory, and his implication that reductive materialism is the only existent, and only possible, philosophy of science, all serve to produce his subtle atman as the one remaining conceivable explanation for the existence of consciousness; furthermore, the social and political implications of this version of Buddhism are horrendously elitist and oppressive. I will then suggest one other possible explanation for the existence of consciousness, which I believe is more in agreement with the basic concept of Buddhism, and could possibly make Wallace’s ostensible project more likely to succeed—and without the negative social and political implications.

The Quantum Myth and a Scientific Straw Man

Wallace has gotten quite a bit of mileage over the years out of the popular mythos of quantum theory, and he hits that note several times in this book. It enables him to give a “scientific” argument against what he repeatedly calls “materialistic” science; on Wallace’s version, quantum physics demonstrates that the universe “requires for its existence the participation of an observer” (84). I’m sure we’re all familiar with the version of quantum theory that tells us that the particle doesn’t exist until we measure it, so consciousness ultimately produces reality. When physicists insist that this is an exaggerated claim, that quantum theory “does not imply that reality is no more than a pure subjective human construct,” Wallace simply insists that they are unwilling to accept the implications of their own theory. He quotes Brukner and Zeilinger who argue that from multiple observations it is possible to “build up objects with a set of properties that do not change under variations of modes of observation or description” (84); essentially, what they suggest is that once we become aware of the influence of measurement, we can determine the level of consistent reality existing independent from our conscious observation. On one reading of Vasubandhu’s writing, this is the point of Yogacara Buddhism: that we can study the mind not because it is the only reality, but because then we can become aware of how it distorts reality, essentially learning to correct for error. Wallace is very attached to what we might call a consciousness-only school of physics because it enables him to “open the door to the possibility of nonphysical influences on the material world” (99), producing a radical duality of atman and conventional samsara, with only a one-way possibility of influence. There are, of course, many ways to understand the quantum theory, and Wallace’s consciousness-only physics is not the only option. As Christopher Norris has pointed out in a very interesting book on the subject, “it is preposterous in the strict sense of that term—an inversion of the rational order of priorities—when thinkers claim to draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought so rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts” (5).  Norris demonstrates that Bohm, who literally wrote the book on quantum theory, always held that there were alternative, realist models capable of explaining all of the quantum “facts.” This alternative was ignored largely for ideological, extra-scientific reasons (See Norris, especially p. 144).  In the case of Wallace’s argument, it seems the “orthodox” quantum interpretation has continued to serve its ideological purpose.

Wallace’s main scientific target is the biological reductionism that would assert that the mind is nothing more than neural activity.  He also wants to reject what he calls “metaphysical realism” (28). By this, he means the “scientific worldview” that insists that the only things that are real and can produce effects are physical things, and that physical is equivalent to matter. Of course, not even the most reductive of empiricists would actually deny the existence of energy in the universe, so Wallace’s argument involves a bit of sleight of hand, as he elides everything but material “entities,” and then denies their reality. This sophistry is fascinating:

According to metaphysical realism, the entire objective universe consists of physical entities that produce the effects measured by human beings; however, we can never perceive these entities, as they exist independently of all measurement.  Therefore, we can never infer the contents of the absolutely objective world on the basis of observations, which always arise relative to systems of measurement. (28)

This passage is worth close attention, because it is essentially this peculiar logic on which Wallace’s entire argument depends. For Wallace, something is only real in the objective sense if it is a discrete entity; then, that entity is completely invisible since it must be “measured” instead of “perceived;” therefore, we can never know what is actually in the objective world at all; from here, it is a short step to the assumption that no objective world even exists: “all observations of the physical world are illusory”(29). This argument depends on many philosophical errors, but the three most important here are: (1) the belief that “physically real” can only mean a discrete material entity whose only properties are mass and location; (2) the assumption that perception is not itself a form of “measurement;” and (3) the assumption that because any specific measurements of the objective world are limited to certain attributes, we cannot infer anything from them. Of course, as Brukner and Zeilinger indicate in the passage quoted above, it is exactly because we can be aware or our systems of measurement, including perceptual ones, that we can make reasonably correct inferences about the objective world.

Wallace’s reductive, straw-man version of the “scientific worldview” is essential, however, in supporting his central claim about the radical duality of reality. He spells this out for us right in the first chapter. “[T]he illusion of knowledge that the mind is physical has delayed the revolutionary development of the mind sciences” he tells us, and this has occurred largely because “the scientific establishment exerts . . . pressure on its members to reject all forms of mind-body dualism in favor of an antiquated monism”(14). Wallace says he wants to “think outside the box—outside the familiar dualities of dualism and monism” (14), but he rejects the “familiar” Cartesian dualism only to replace it with a more radical dualism, in which an absolute atman, which he refers to at times as “substrate consciousness,” is the deepest and most permanent level of reality, influencing but unaffected by the physical realm. The existence of philosophies of science other than reductive materialist monism has apparently conveniently escaped Wallace’s notice.  Roy Bhaskar’s realist theory of science, for instance, completely avoids the problems Wallace finds with the “scientific worldview” without requiring some non-natural, other-worldly power to fill in the gaps. Bhaskar’s philosophy of science includes distinctions between intransitive and transitive objects of science; that is, between the objective reality and the object of thought produced by a science. It includes the possibility that reality is stratified, with different levels of causal mechanisms, and therefore accepts the possibility of emergence. Emergent powers cannot be reduced to more “basic” strata on which they depend; so we cannot explain the mind by studying the brain any more than we could expect to derive the laws of baseball from the laws of physics, despite the fact that it would be impossible to play the game if those laws ceased to operate.

The false philosophical dilemma Wallace sets up requires absolute ignorance of serious philosophical thought about science, and so a misunderstanding of how science operates. Wallace assumes that there must be final, complete answers, or there are no answers at all—and therefore science fails. This assumption depends upon an ontology that is both materially monist and non-stratified; these are not assumptions that are required for a realist ontology. In the words of Andrew Collier, from a critical realist perspective “we never reach rock-bottom—so the prejudice that only rock-bottom explanations are real ones would leave us forever without real explanations” (110). Wallace demands of science that it jump immediately to the rock-bottom answer, rejecting the possibility of stratification, and the transitive nature of explanatory mechanisms. This enables him to make the claim that from a scientific perspective “matter—as it exists in and of itself, independent of measurement—is as unknowable to the human intellect as God” (234).  And, when he comes across a poll which suggests that the majority of physicists are undecided about the best interpretation of quantum mechanics, he can only conclude that the “real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty” (236), and the only solution is to conclude that consciousness creates the world. He is incapable of seeing that physicists may be less likely than he is to reify their transitive objects of knowledge; for the best physicists, the interpretations we produce in concepts are what we argue about, because they are always constructs designed to move us toward better descriptions and explanations of the intransitive object. We may never reach rock-bottom, probably won’t, but that doesn’t require us to abandon science and resign the field to the supernatural. Wallace claims that modern science “is incompatible with the Middle Way school of Buddhist philosophy” (29). I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Wallace’s atman or Bhaskar’s version of realism is closer to Nagarjuna’s epistemology and ontology.

William James, Shangri-La, and Reactionary Ideology

One of the reasons I was initially prompted to read this book was my surprise at Wallace’s call to return to James’s radical empiricism. The stupid insistence of psychology and “mind sciences” on a naïve and reductive empiricism that has never really been the underlying philosophy of any real scientific progress is certainly frustrating. But there are so many alternative scientific epistemologies, I could not imagine why Wallace would pick up on this glaringly reactionary, elitist, and theistic form of capitalist ideology and mistake it for a philosophy of science.

Even if he were reluctant to engage the more radically realist philosophies of science, there have certainly been more philosophically sophisticated versions of radical empiricism advanced in the past century. Quine, Kitcher, and Kornblith come immediately to mind; and I’m sure a philosopher could easily add to the list. What, I wondered, is the ideological value of James’s particular version of radical empiricism?

James’s psychology was begun as an ideological project, intended to defend the existence of the soul against the rampant materialism gaining popularity in academic circles (see Leary). In The Principles of Psychology, James makes no bones about it: “I confess, therefore, that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own, seems to me the line of least logical resistance, so far as we yet have attained” (181). His argument is that the conceptual puzzles and paradoxes of psychology can only, finally, be resolved by either admitting a soul, or resigning some problems to “nature in her unfathomable designs” which “no mortal may ever know” (182). It should be clear why James appeals to Wallace: a reductive version of science leading to aporia which can only be resolved by appeal to a transcendent soul.

James’s positivism is also quite explicit, and nowhere more so than in a passage Wallace cites in an earlier book, The Taboo of Subjectivity: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 26). This may seem obvious, but the problem is that for radical empiricism the only things that count as “real” (in a physical, objective sense) are those that can be experienced, and all experiences are real in exactly the same way. There is no room for theoretical causal mechanisms, and no way to distinguish between the kinds of reality that obtain in a thought and in a bomb. Just as importantly, there is no way to think about what Bhaskar calls the “metacritical dimension,” which “aims to identify the presence of causally significant absences in thought, seeking to elicit . . . what cannot be said or done . . . in a particular language or conceptual system” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 25). The rejection of such dimensions of thought in positivist philosophies is always in the service of conservatism. Pragmatism is, as James insists, only interested in “practical” results, and particularly interested in insisting that these results can only be produced from within the current, existing, system—of thought, language, politics, economics.

The political conservatism of this can perhaps be made clear by mentioning Wallace’s dismissal of his own ridiculously incorrect understanding of Freud. From his positivist perspective, Wallace can only misunderstand Freud, and can only think of the unconscious as “the subtlest discursive thoughts, mental dialogues, images, memories, desire, and emotions,” which “Freud discovered centuries after Buddhist contemplatives” (188). That this is not what Freud meant by the unconscious should be clear to anybody who is familiar with serious psychoanalytic thought. Suffice it to say that the dynamic unconscious, for Freud, is not subtle and unnoticed but positively existing mental activity; rather, the unconscious is precisely what is unthinkable or unspeakable within a specific conceptual system. The reason for this persistent misreading of Freud is perhaps clearest when Wallace trots out once again the most often quoted and least often understood passage in all of Freud’s writings. I’ll quote it here at some length:

When I promised my patients help and relief through the cathartic method, I was often obliged to hear the following objections, “You say, yourself, that my suffering has probably much to do with my own relation and destinies. You cannot change any of that. In what manner, then, can you help me?” To this I could always answer: “I do not doubt at all that it would be easier for fate than for me to remove your sufferings, but you will be convinced that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness, against which you will be better able to defend yourself with a restored nervous system.” (Studies in Hysteria, p. 232)

This is the source of the most common quip about psychoanalysis: that it can only convert misery into ordinary unhappiness. The point Freud is making, however, is much different. For Freud, it is imperative to accept that much of our human unhappiness is because of our social environment, and that is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis; the really useful benefit of uncovering what is unconscious, what is invisible within our construal of the world, is that it might leave us “better able to defend” ourselves—to make real changes in those “relations and destinies” causing our “everyday unhappiness.”  Pragmatism would prefer we remain resigned to the positivity of its conceptual construal of the world, to eliminate the threat of any demand for social change. James’s radical empiricism was always meant to cut off any consideration of the social production of our mental experience. In fact, Wallace quotes Kurt Danziger in support of his claim that abandonment of the introspective method occurred for “ideological rather than pragmatic” reasons (173). In fact, that is Danziger’s point, but the ideological reason is not what Wallace implies; instead, the reason for the abandonment of introspection was that it “demonstrated that the nature of the object of psychological investigation was linked to the social structure of the investigative situation” (Danziger, p. 48). The problem wasn’t materialist ideology, but the possibility that the contents of the psyche were produced by social structures; and so it would require social change to improve or cure the mind. Interdependence, it seems, was more troubling than the possibility of a soul.

And now I come to what will undoubtedly be the most controversial claim I will make in this essay: that the extreme conservatism of Wallace’s philosophical approach is directly connected to the particular kind of Buddhism he is proposing. That is, I will dare to say what is unspeakable in Western Buddhist circles: that Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century. What could be a better justification for inherited aristocracy than the belief that they have earned their wealth and power by meritorious actions in past lives? A couple hundred aristocratic families lived in opulence, while Buddhist monastics sought meditative bliss in idle luxury, all supported by the labor of an uneducated and economically oppressed hereditary peasant cast, who apparently had some bad karma to work off. This is the Shangri-La whose loss brings tears to the eyes of Hollywood celebrities. Somehow it has come to seem a horrible injustice that an oppressive oligarchy was deposed. It may, of course, be argued that it is a terrible injustice that this deposition did not lead to terribly much improvement in the lives of the peasants, but Wallace’s frequent cold-war anti-communist rhetoric just rings hollow for me.

An elite class, however, turns out to be essential to the kind of Buddhism Wallace is presenting. He repeatedly emphasizes the rarity of achieving the first dhyana, citing a Sri Lankan monk who says there are fewer than five people in Sri Lanka who have achieved it, and assuring us that even in Tibet, where the higher form of Buddhism is supposedly practiced, it is rare (p. 148). Besides the rarity of qualified teachers, there is the need for “a quiet, healthy, pleasant environment where one’s material needs are easily met,” so that one can practice continuously (although the truly dedicated might need as little as “six hours each day” and “even engage with others between sessions” (155-156). Still, he quotes Atisha: “If you lack the prerequisites of shamatha, you will not achieve samadhi even in thousands of years, regardless of how diligently you practice” (155).  Such long stretches of idle time (Wallace reminds us that it took even Buddha six years), and the provision of all material comforts, is clearly the privilege of only an elite class of people with good karma. The vast majority of people would simply remain karmically incapable of such spiritual progress in this lifetime.

The rarity of achieving these advanced meditative states also calls attention to Wallace’s odd definition of “skeptic.” Apparently, for him it means absolute unquestioning blind faith in something we can never see any evidence of or hope to even approach in our lifetimes. Not a definition of skeptic I have ever heard before. Wallace’s skepticism is apparently limited to skepticism about a naïve philosophy of science that few people ever accepted; when it comes to Buddhism, his appeals to authority abound. He repeatedly cites “authoritative accounts” (182) or truth “revealed” to an “eminent master” (214), to support claims about the achievement of a stable “pristine awareness” or state of “bliss” that cannot be verified by our own “radical empirical” endeavors, since it is achievable only rarely, by those with the right karma.

Although Wallace does assert that “no autonomous, controlling self can be found,” and that this is what is meant by the Buddhist term anatman (110), it is hard to see in what sense the “timeless, ‘nonmanifesting’ consciousness that experiences” nirvana (209) is anything but an atman. He claims that the “mind when it has settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity” (69) can experience the “quality of bliss” that “does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus”(68). I have no idea whether this is standard Tibetan Buddhism or not—I can only assume Wallace knows of what he speaks. If it is, I can only say I would have no interest in it. It isn’t hard to see, however, why this kind of Buddhism might appeal to an economic elite in the west; there is no need to worry about the suffering of others, just seek your own bliss in idle luxury. And we can rest assured that our eternal atman-that-is-not-one will dwell in bliss, without having to make any change whatsoever in our current ideology: Wallace assures us that “both religious and non-religious people can embrace this ideal of genuine happiness, with specific attributes defined by each one in terms of his or her own worldview”(172). As long as you have the right karma to be born rich, you’re all set. To the privileged elite, Wallace’s comfort-Buddhism says “we are home at last” (85). Enjoy your bliss!

Escaping Atomism

In conclusion, I would like to suggest one possible alternative to Wallace’s response to reductive materialism. The problems that James saw as “unfathomable” unless we accepted the existence of a soul, and that Wallace sees as insoluble in “mind sciences” unless we accept an atman, might turn out not to be problems at all if we could simply abandon philosophical atomism.  Wallace uses the term “mind” in two ways, usually without clarifying which use he intends: the mind is both the “conceptual thought” that exists at the conventional level, and the eternal “substrate consciousness.” In both cases, however, it is clear that for Wallace each mind is individual, either eternally separated from all others in the case of the substrate consciousness, or individually arising from the interactions of a brain and its environment in the case of the conventionally existent mind.  Introspection, for Wallace, is compared to an “inwardly focused telescope,” that examines an “individual mind stream” (24). For both James and Wallace, and indeed for much of Western thought, the insistence on discrete, individual consciousnesses has lead to endless paradoxes, aporia, and irresolvable problems—from free will to solipsism, from the status of knowledge to the existence of a mind, there are a host of problems that cannot be solved unless we abandon the notion of consciousness or mind existing individually, the depths of a mind.

Eighty years ago, V. N. Volosinov proposed that we drop this line of pursuit. “Consciousness,” he suggested, “becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud and most thoroughly with Lacan, presented a radically empty subject, arising not from deep within but from without, in a socially produced symbolic network. Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals.

I would suggest that this line of thought is much more compatible with the Buddhist concepts of pratityasamutpada, sunyata, and anatman than any other form of Western philosophical thought. Further, I would suggest that this line of thought could learn a great deal from Buddhist thinkers of the past couple thousand years—not all of them, but certainly Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Candrakirti at the very least could help teach us to think the radical implications of a non-atomist subject.

If Wallace’s ultimate goal is a political or economic one, propping up a privileged elite or garnering financial support from wealthy Westerners, then I would suppose he would have little interest in the criticism I have offered here. If, on the other hand, his interest is truly in exploring the nature of human consciousness, he might want to do a little reading, and catch up on the advances made in the philosophy of science by Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism, and explore the theory of the subject advanced by Lacan and Badiou.  I’m not so optimistic as to hope that will happen, but I am just optimistic enough to hope that a few of those interested in the possibilities of Buddhist thought and practice might realize that we do not have to choose between Wallace’s Tibetan atman and the kind of reductive “naturalizing” of Buddhism advanced by Owen Flanagan, who want to “tame” Buddhism by jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit with a reductive, empiricist philosophy of science, keeping only its useful tendency to teach people to be nice. As Alain Badiou has put it, the enemy of thought today is “a sort of scientism stipulating the mind must be naturalized and studied according to the experimental protocols of neurology, reinforced, as always, by an inane moralism with a religious tinge—in substance: one has to be nice” (118). Wallace’s version of Buddhism would simply abandon the field to this enemy, and retreat to the solitary pursuit of bliss.

From a non-buddhist perspective, the decisional structure of Wallace’s brand of Buddhism is quite clear. As I understand Laruelle’s concept, the decisional structure is the fundamental construal of the world which enables a particular project in thought, but which remains invisible from within that thought. That Wallace cannot see his decisional structure is evident from his ostensible rejection of it: he claims he wants to reject Cartesian dualism and accept the Buddhist concept of anatman, and he cannot see that he is producing both an absolute dualism and the ultimate atman. His reductive understanding of science and epistemology and absolute faith in the authority of the Buddhist tradition would leave us no choice but to accept the existence of an atman that he simply insists is not one. From within his decisional structure, no argument could defeat Buddhist authority; since none of us can achieve the transcendent meditative states of the masters, we can neither debate their existence and value nor even hope to comprehend what such states actually are. No alternative version of science is possible, since for Wallace only rock-bottom (positivist) answers can count as scientific. This combination produces a self-replicating hermetic system designed to perpetuate inequality with the promise of future bliss.

References

Badiou, A. Second Manifesto for Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Bhaskar, R. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Collier, A. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso, 1994.

Danziger, K. Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Freud, S. & Breur, J. Studies in Hysteria. Trans. A.A. Brill.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1937.

James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.

James, W. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902

Norris, C. Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism: Philosophical Responses to Quantum Mechanics. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. L. Matejka  I.R. Titunuk.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Wallace, A.B. Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Wallace, A.B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Links

New York Times, Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists,” February 10, 2017.

Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalist Blog.

Richard K. Payne, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism,” Pacific World, Third Series, no. 10 (Fall 2008), pp. 177-223.

I was just saying to a friend: “I bet we’ll start hearing the terms ‘Buddhism’ and ‘fascism’ in juxtaposition,” when, snap! ping! Richard Payne’s spanking new essay “Fascists Religiosities” appeared. Visit his blog, and answer his koan for the latter days: “If all religions are ultimately the same, why be a Buddhist?”

On Christofascism, see, Paul F. Knitter, “Theocentric Christology,” Theology Today, 40 (2), July 1983.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

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: | 44 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!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

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 »

Posted in Secularists | Tagged: , , | 15 Comments »

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments »

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 »

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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 »

Spectral Discourse

Posted by Glenn Wallis on April 18, 2016

spectral discourseWhat follows is a chapter in search of a book. I originally wrote it for an edited volume on meditation and health. I thought that the editor’s idea for the book was very promising. A conference was held in which a group of Buddhist studies scholars, Buddhist practitioners, and a combination of the two, scholar-practicitioners, gave papers offering various perspectives on meditation and health. The idea for the book was to take papers that addressed the same theme but from different perspectives and put them in conversation with one another. Dialogue was central to the project. The title of the book might have been something like Dialogues on Meditation and Health.

The editor was rightfully concerned that such a book would be too strange a hybrid for a publisher. After all, it combined untheorized dogmatic discourse with theoretically sophisticated discourse. How could a book like this, one that addressed at least two seemingly incommensurable audiences, be made to work? My contribution was meant to help in that regard.

It is not surprising that a book like this would fail to come to fruition. It was a long-shot to begin with. The reasons for the failure in this case were complex, having to do with the usual university politics, funder requirements, and professional and personal needs of the participants. But, being a disciple of Freud, I suspect that it failed for other reasons, reasons having to do with the issues I address in my text.

The examples I give stem from the specific nature of the conference. Some of them might seem strange to some readers. It should not be difficult, however, to exchange out these examples with countless other x-buddhist instances.

 

Spectral Discourse

by Glenn Wallis

1. The articles in this volume create a spectrum. A spectrum, recall, is a perceptual field of some sort that is constituted by a shared component, but within which specific values can vary infinitely. Think of the color spectrum. It spans hues from dark, melancholic violets and cool, deep indigos to hot, bright yellows and fiery reds. Notice the plurals. A spectrum is characterized by its gradations of values. But notice, too, the singularity of theme: the common phenomenon we call color. This allows us to speak more figuratively of a spectrum of, say, political views or of the autism spectrum. So, I think spectrum is an apt metaphor for making explicit the fact that the papers in this volume are (1) addressing a single theme, Buddhism, but (2) doing so in a way that reveals different values—sometimes subtly and sometimes quite profoundly different values. A reader of this volume could thus be excused for questioning whether it coheres in any meaningful way. To return to our metaphor, if that reader said that these papers were not on the same wavelength, would he or she be wrong? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Constructivists, Critics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash

Posted by Glenn Wallis on March 4, 2016

perdrougge3

Notes Towards a Coming Backlash: Mindfulne$$ as an opiate of the middle classes

By Per Drougge*

The “Western Buddhist” stance is arguably the most effective way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. –Slavoj Žižek 2001: 13

This is what we are obliged to posit here: the historical tendency of late capitalism—what we have called the reduction to the gift and the reduction to the body—is in any case unrealizable. Human beings cannot revert to the immediacy of the animal kingdom (assuming indeed the animals enjoy themselves such phenomenological immediacy). –Fredric Jameson 2003: 717

Introduction

An earlier version of this article appeared in a Swedish anthology, Mindfulness: Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning (“Mindfulness: Tradition, Interpretation, and Application”), back in 2014. As it is a kind of “nethnography,” or at least cites numerous online sources, I’d been thinking of posting a hyperlinked version of it on my own website; the web is really a much better medium for this kind of text than a printed book. I never got around to it, however, so I was very pleased when Glenn Wallis suggested I post an English translation on this blog. A man of many talents (and languages), Glenn also made a preliminary translation, to which I’ve added some  corrections and updates.

Just like in the US and many other places, mindfulness has become part of the therapeutic, self-improvement, and management mainstream in Sweden during the past decade. Critical voices have been few and far apart, and my main purpose with these notes was simply to introduce a few critical perspectives to a Swedish audience with the hope of challenging some of the uncritical media hype and hoopla contributing to the mindfulness craze.

For several years, I’ve also been fascinated by how websites, blogs, and discussion boards have opened up for critical discussions, not only of mindfulness but of x-buddhism as a whole. The speculative non-buddhism blogs have probably been the liveliest and most radical ones, but there are many others, most of them operating from within the world of x-buddhism, which have challenged the conspiracies of silence and stultifying dharmic correctness contributing to horrid abuse and an almost phobic aversion to critical thought and self-reflection. I therefore made a point of using mainly texts from blogs and online publications when compiling these “notes towards a backlash.” Most of the material will be familiar to readers of this blog, but hopefully the text can function as a compendium for anyone interested in critiques of the mindfulness cult.

As for the predicted backlash, I guess it’s still too early to decide if it has arrived. Given the faddish nature of the arenas where mindfulness has been most successful, and the incessant demand for new products and services, I suppose that the popularity of mindfulness has reached its peak, however. Around the time this article was first published, the word “backlash” itself suddenly also started to appear in many discussions of mindfulness (For a few examples, see here, here, or here). The important question, of course, is what will come next, how people will respond to whatever fad will replace mindfulness, and to what extent the tools used for a critique of mindfulness will still be applicable.

* * *

I am a social anthropologist with a special interest in the global spread of Buddhist idea(l)s and practices and the formation of so-called Western Buddhism. My forthcoming dissertation deals with something I call the monastic ideal, permeating most lay-oriented, modernist (or x-) Buddhisms, but for the past few years I’ve also had reason to concern myself with secular/therapeutic mindfulness and the rise of a global mindfulness industry. This makes sense; it has been argued that “mindfulness” is the most visible form of Buddhism outside Asia, and one could also see it as an extreme form of modernist Buddhism.

Whether secular/therapeutic mindfulness should be understood as a form of (crypto) Buddhism or something else, is a complex question which has been the subject of some controversy. Many (but far from all) mindfulness practitioners are quick to point out that
what they are teaching is not Buddhism. Like the vast majority of their clients, and the consumers of mindfulness literature, most of them also do not identify themselves as Buddhists. A scholar like Jeff Wilson (Wilson 2014), on the other hand, treats the proliferation of mindfulness-labeled products and services as a paradigmatic example of how Buddhism adapts to and gains mass appeal in a new host-culture by offering practical or worldly benefits. From the perspective of speculative non-buddhism it makes sense to include both secular mindfulness and so-called Secular Buddhism in the wide category of x-buddhism. (For an elaboration on this theme, see for example this post.)

As we know, the practice of mindfulness has often been marketed as a kind of “neutral” technique, stripped of religious beliefs and cultural specifics. Paradoxically, many of its proponents are also convinced that “mindfulness”, as taught today, constitutes the very essence not only of Buddhism but of all major “wisdom traditions”. This perennialist—and chauvinist— assertion has often also been part of what is undeniably a very successful sales pitch. To the critical observer, this may seem as a naïve (or very smart) attempt at having it both ways: The dubious invocation of a “2,500 years old, unbroken tradition” gives one kind of legitimization to the mindfulness project, while a meditation practice wrapped in the language of popular psychology, neuropsychiatry and managementspeak will be even more appealing to clinicians and a mass audience than one that comes with the bells and smells, foreign terminology and metaphysics of conventional Buddhism.  (To make things even more confusing, the mindfulness movements undisputed front-figure, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has been quite open with how he sees MBSR as a form of upaya in the service of Buddhist mission.

This janiform nature of mindfulness  raises several interesting questions about the role fo religon (specifically Buddhism) in today’s society, but also about distinctions such as religious/secular and soteriological/therapeutic The ambiguous connection to a religious tradition also makes the significant impact mindfulness has had on ostensibly secular contexts such as medicine, social work, education, the penitentiary system, human resource management, and the military, into something quite remarkable, and something which itself deserves a closer study. In part, this enthusiastic reception can probably be explained by the common but questionable idea that Buddhism is less a religion than a kind of (proto) science which just happens to always resonate with current paradigms, be it quantum mechanics, or cognitive neuroscience, or something else.1 Using a bit of SNB terminology, I would also suggest we could see this as a symptom of a widespread buddhaphilia, a general tendency towards uncritical admiration for all things Buddhist, especially the contemplative super-hero.2 And would it be too far-fetched to suggest that both the inflated claims of the mindfulness industry and the readiness with which substantial parts of the x-buddhist community has embraced it, has something to do with the principle of sufficient buddhism?

* * *

Somewhat in the shadow of the overwhelming hype surrounding mindfulness over the past decade, a number of critical questions and objections have also been raised. Such remarks are of different types, come from various theoretical positions and have been voiced with different emphases. Several of these critiques are discussed in the present book (Plank 2014), and others have been treated extensively elsewhere.3

Some of these arguments are familiar from related contexts, such as discussions about psychoanalysis and capitalism (Zaretsky 2013) or the great debates about psychiatry and anti-psychiatry during the 1960s and 1970s (Ohlsson 2008). Other objections to mindfulness and the mindfulness industry can be seen as variations or specifications of a more general criticism of commodified and/or trivialized “spirituality” (e.g. Carrette & King, 2005;  Hornborg, 2012; Webster, 2012). A different set of objections have been raised by Buddhist scholars and practitioners—central to their critique has been the interpretation and use of the Pali term sati (Skt. sṃṛṭi), that critics consider to have lost its original meaning when it was translated as “mindfulness” and grafted onto a new and very different context  (cf. Bodhi, 2011 and Gethin, 2011). More recently, there have also been some methodological objections to the numerous studies on the clinical effects of meditation which are often cited as proof that mindfulness actually “works” as intended, as well as a growing interest in possible side-effects of meditation practice.

Now, this criticism of mindfulness is obviously far from uniform, and sometimes even contradictory. Overall, however, it represents a potentially devastating critique of conceptual fuzziness, grandiose claims, cynical appropriation and (mis-)use of Buddhist concepts and practices, anti-intellectualism, and—mot least— how mindfulness functions as a control mechanism and ideological lubricant in an increasingly harsh neoliberal order (or as an “opium of the middle-classes” as someone put it). At the same time, it should be noted that most of this critical discussion, until quite recently, has occurred within narrow academic or x-buddhist contexts and rarely involved committed proponents of mindfulness.

Quite suddenly something seems to have changed, however. The last couple of years have seen an upsurge in critical engagement with both mindfulness and the mindfulness industry, in popular media as well as websites, blogs, online fora, and in so-called social media. The number—and intensity—of debates triggered by articles published in places like The New York TimesHuffington Post or Salon.com  indicates both a growing need and a new willingness to think critically about the issues outlined above.

This is an interesting and promising phenomenon, not least since it shows how online debates allow for discussions across disciplinary and professional borders, sometimes blurring the distinction between academic, professional and popular discourses. One could also ask why this kind of debate is taking place at this moment. Does it reflect an increasing tedium and suspicion regarding mindfulness? Is it a consequence of people finally becoming fed up with cynicism and crassness that characterizes the meeting of “Eastern wisdom”, psychotherapy, and management?

In what follows, I will present a few particularly illuminating online discussions of mindfulness from the past couple of years. From the outset, I want to emphasize that the purpose of this contribution is not to formulate or synthesize a coherent critique of mindfulness and/or the mindfulness industry. This rhapsodic overview should instead be seen as an attempt to present a snapshot of an ongoing, informal (and often very stimulating) debate.

Using web publications (including blogs and their comment fields) as a starting point can, of course, be seen as problematic. Online interactions rarely allow writers to make subtle distinctions, and the opinions expressed are sometimes hasty, ill-informed and ill-conceived. It should be noted, however, that the selected examples are written by highly qualified commentators. And even if the tone is sometimes sharply polemical, their posts are of considerable substance. For reasons of space, I’ve had to abbreviate and simplify some rather complex arguments and I won’t try to reproduce the long and winding discussions that often follow the original posts. For the reader who wants to get some insight into how mindfulness practitioners think about their profession and respond to questions and criticisms, this kind of material is quite valuable, however.

Source volatility is another, unavoidable problem with this kind of material. All of the web pages that I am referring to were freely available in May, 2014 (a few have been added since then), but links go bad, web pages can be locked up behind pay walls, or disappear without warning.

It is still too early to determine whether these debates, dominated by North American participants, herald a massive backlash against mindfulness. They nevertheless indicate that the most naïve and uncritical claims no longer will go unchallenged; and it is my hope that they can contribute to a revitalized and more nuanced (“nuanced” doesn’t have to mean pedantic or bland) discussion also in Sweden.

Mindfulness in Wonderland

 

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My first example is a blog entry published in 2011, thus preceding last year’s debates. I have included it here anyway, as it deals with a couple of important themes that don’t seem to get the kind of attention they clearly deserve. Glenn Wallis’s “Elixir of Mindfulness” was first published on this blog and later in the journal non+x (Wallis 2012). The author holds a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, has published a number of studies and translations of Buddhist texts (such as Wallis, 2002, 2004, 2007) and is now the chair of a program in applied meditation at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies, in Philadelphia. In recent years, Wallis has also gained a reputation as a sharp critic of Western Buddhism as well as of secular mindfulness (Wallis, et al. 2013).

“Elixir of Mindfulness” begins with the observation that today’s mindfulness industry has successfully moved into the competitive market for naïve utopias that was previously dominated by healers and preachers, Theosophists and self-help groups, churches and cults. Like those enticers, mindfulness also comes with the promise of a universal aid, an elixir against all human suffering. This assertion may seem too drastic, over the top, or applicable only in the most vulgar abuses. Wallis, however, cites for evidence a popular website, mindful.org, which represents the business mainstream.5 The site proudly proclaims that a dose of mindfulness can both enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of everyday life, and help us deal with life’s most difficult challenges—in a way which makes the reader wonder if the copy was written (in the words of Wallis) by some latter-day Dale Carnegie who forgot to take his Adderall?

Indeed, there appears to be no limit to what can be achieved by means of mindfulness. According to mindful.org, mindfulness is helpful in such diverse contexts as nursing, death and dying, parenting, healing and health, intimate relationships and sex, consumerism, finances, cooking and diet, entrepreneurship, creativity, sports, activism, education, environmental protection, prison advocacy, and so on, ad nauseam.

In case a Swedish reader might feel compelled to dismiss this cheerful sanctity as a specifically North American phenomenon, let me mention some Swedish books and CDs:

Mindfulness Exercises 4-7 years; Mindfulness in School; Mindfulness for Parents; Lose Weight with Mindfulness; Mindfulness in Elderly Care;  Mindfulness in Life: Guided Meditations for Men (“Become a more conscious, present husband, lover, father and manager. Learn to observe and manage your thoughts so that they do not constitute an obstacle for you. Train your capacity for attention and mindfulness and to have the patience, perseverance and acceptance to grow. Treat every relationship, love meeting or golf swing as the unique moment it is. Increased desire and joy of life comes for free.”); Mindfulness in life: Guided Meditations for Women (“Mindfulness is a practice that can enrich your life by learning to listen to your body, embrace your femininity, and manage stress. Mindfulness means to have contact with the present, to the present moment as it is—pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad—because that’s what right now is right here.”). Would a certain over-satiety appear after this dose of mindfulness, there is also Heartfulness: Your Way to Happiness in the Present. The new wave of mindfulness.

The English market is filled with an almost incalculable number of such titles. Alongside of the conventional books on mindfulness and depression, anxiety, pain, obesity, anorexia, addiction, love, sex, childbirth, parenting, aging and death, we also find some difficult to categorize but evocative works with titles such as The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance; Mindfulness for Law Students; and The Mindful Dog Owner.6 In addition, of course, are the scores of books on Buddhist meditation that have the word “mindfulness” in their titles.

How is it possible that mindfulness can accomplish all this? And what do these books even mean by “mindfulness”? Both researchers and mindfulness practitioners with theoretical interests have long pointed out that Jon Kabat-Zinn’s oft-quoted definition (“Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possible”) is unsatisfactory. Things become even more confusing when one examines how the term is used in diverse contexts. Wallis presents several examples from mindfulness.org and identifies four broad categories:

  1. Mental operations: attention, concentration, change in focus, value-free observation of consciousness content, etc.
  2. Behavior: kindness, compassion, common consideration, love, deep listening, slowing down, niceness, being good.
  3. Traditional practices: various forms of Buddhist meditation, generalized/unspecified meditation, contemplation, various styles of yoga.
  4. Indistinct something-or-others: openness, relating more effectively to thoughts and feelings, lovingkindness7, going inward, letting go, acceptance, truly seeing someone, minding mind, being in the moment, being moment to moment, just being.

The list of more or less diffuse descriptions ends with a recent formulation, attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, which also confirms the concept’s elusive nature. It also shows that mindfulness appears to be yet another form of “spirituality” (with or without scientific claims):

Mindfulness is not a technology. It is a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of knowing.

The lack of a clear definition and the baffling and labyrinthine diversity of the phenomena that fall within the concept leads Wallis to describe “mindfulness,” with a reference to the semiotician David Chandler, as a textbook example of what is known as an “empty” or “floating” signifier.8 Wallis points to the similarities between the usage of the term “mindfulness” and the Melanesian word mana, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous example of a floating signifier. Wallis then asks if “mindfulness” can be said to function in the same way: an amorphous concept that in a Humpty-Dumpty-like fashion can mean whatever the user wants. The only consistency, perhaps, is that the various usages all circle around the notion of some kind of life-giving elixir. Seen in this way, it becomes easier to understand the (unreasonable) expectations and (grandiose) claims linked to mindfulness, as well as the futility of the search for clear definitions of the term.

 

Corporate Mindfulness and its discontents

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My next example is an article titled “Beyond McMindfulness,” written by David Loy and Ron Purser, published in the Huffington Post in the summer of 2013. The article began a debate that lasted for the rest of the year9,1 and the term “McMindfulness” itself has since become a recurrent trope in discussions about mindfulness.

Loy is a philosopher, a Zen Buddhist teacher, and author of several books that can perhaps be described as an attempt to formulate a critical theory with Buddhist overtones (Loy, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2008). Purser is also a Zen Buddhist teacher, as well as a professor of business management, and a business consultant. There is certainly nothing unusual about this apparent symbiosis between “spirituality” and the business community, but is interesting in this particular context as “Beyond McMindfulness” is a scathing critique of what Buddhist studies scholar Richard Payne calls “corporatist spirituality.” It is a short article of only a few pages. It touches, however, on several problematic aspects of today’s “unadorned and secular” mindfulness, especially its selective appropriation of Buddhist thought and practice as well as the way in which mindfulness is increasingly used in a cynical and manipulative corporate culture. (Purser has since published other articles in the same vein —listed on his academia.edu page, which can be found here —which has made him a somewhat controversial figure within the mindfulness movement.)

The two authors note, initially with appreciation, that mindfulness has become a part of the North American mainstream, and that this kind of meditation today is commonplace in large corporations and in government agencies, schools, prisons, and even in the military. “Millions of people have taken advantage of mindfulness and experience less stress, increased concentration, and perhaps a little more empathy,” write Loy and Purser. They then add that the “mindfulness boom” also has a darker side. What they particularly oppose is the secularization of mindfulness which, paradoxically, has been a necessary condition for its widespread applications. Decoupled from its ethical and soteriological context, this Buddhist-derived meditative practice loses its radical emancipatory potential; and what remains is not much more than a self-help technique to deal with psychosomatic disorders and foster more focused, thus productive, middle managers.

That recontextualized, therapeutic or medicalized mindfulness is a watered-down version of the “real” Buddhism is certainly a fairly common (yet controversial) criticism, coming mainly from “traditional” Buddhists. It is usually then claimed that the actual purpose of Buddhist practice, namely, liberation, enlightenment or awakening, has come to be replaced by something as trivial as well-being and reduced stress.10 The argument is also made that the more traditional Buddhist practice involves an integrated triad of meditative absorption (samadhi), ethical conduct (sila) and insight (prajna), and, furthermore, that a meditation practice lacking latter two aspects easily degenerates into an unproductive, narcissist pursuit.

Loy and Purser go a step further in their criticism when they point out that today’s mindfulness meditation is often used in a way that is not only ineffective in accessing the deeper causes of human misery (i.e., according to Buddhism, the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion), but rather strengthens these causes. How? In situating well-being, concentration, and relaxation within the same free market economic system that is dependent on—and indeed can even be said to produce—these very “poisons”.

Many enthusiasts seem to assume that the cultivation of “mindfulness” through meditation practice in itself is either a value-neutral training or something that will automatically produce positive ethical consequences. To this point, Loy and Purser mention that in classical Buddhism an important distinction is made between “right attention” (samma sati) and “wrong attention” (miccha sati).

That mindfulness has become so popular in the corporate world can, obviously, be explained by the fact that the practice is not only marketed as a way to increase employees’ concentration and thus their productivity. Mindfulness is also advertised as a kind of respite from the modern world of work insecurity and competition. When a worker’s unhappiness and stress persist despite mindful breathing exercises and despite attentively chewing raisins, it is now understood that the responsibility lies with the individual, specifically with her lack of mindfulness. Here one could also add that the often-repeated encouragement to assume an “accepting,” “non-judgmental,” and “non-reactive” attitude, of course, fits like a glove for the employers who want their employees to passively accept the social and economic status quo of the workplace.

As mentioned above, “Beyond McMindfulness” attracted considerable attention. Although many Huffington Post commentators expressed agreement with the author’s argument, I got the impression that the larger debate that followed its publication only confirms what Loy and Purser write at the end of the article: that many mindfulness practitioners and advocates consider ethical and social considerations to be an irrelevant and unnecessarily politicized criticism.

Even if sympathetic to the authors’ analysis, one can of course argue that they make a mistake by injecting Buddhist ideals into a late capitalistic reality. It has been claimed, for instance, that today’s Western Buddhism often serves a similar or identical ideological function as secular mindfulness (Wallis et al. 2013; Pepper 2014). A critique similar to that presented in “Beyond McMindfulness” could also be directed against certain features of contemporary, Asian Buddhism. One example would be the Japanese Zen establishment; even though it no longer actively supports brutal militarism (Victoria 2006), it is still fairly common for Japanese companies to send their employees to Zen temples in order to cultivate self-discipline, endurance, conformity, and obedience (Victoria 1997).

 

Mindfulness or Mindlessness:
An Historically Informed Critique of Mindfulness

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The third example is neither an article nor a blog post, but a short paper by Robert H Sharf with the title “Mindfulness or Mindlessness: Traditional and Modern Critiques of ‘Bare Awareness,’” presented at the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry’s Advanced Study Institute at McGill University, June 2013. The presentation was recorded on video and posted on YouTube11. As Sharf’s paper challenges several common notions regarding both Buddhism and mindfulness, it has generated some debate although the video clip has not received the same kind of attention as, say, the “Beyond McMindfulness” article. Nevertheless, it is an excellent and accessible introduction for anyone interested in situating both mindfulness and x-buddhism in a wider historical and doctrinal context.

Sharf is a professor of Buddhist Studies at Berkeley University and is well-known as the author of a few oft-quoted articles critiquing popular views on Zen and Buddhism in general (Sharf 1993, 1995a, 1995b). Mindfulness or Mindlessness can be seen as continuation of that work. Just like Loy and Purser, he problematizes the relation between the Buddhist tradition and mindfulness, but from an historically informed perspective highly critical of the modernist understanding of the role of meditation in the Buddhist tradition that has been so important for the formation of today’s mindfulness discourse.

Sharf’s exposition covers a lot of ground and is rather rhapsodic. Here I want to focus on two themes of particular interest. The first concerns the relation between Buddhist practice, mental health, and happiness. The second deals with the concept sati/sṃṛṭi or ”mindfulness” itself, and how it has been connected with ideas of unmediated, direct or bare awareness. Sharf points out, for example, that mindfulness, contrary to a common claim, is not the essence of a 2,500 year old, unbroken tradition. Today’s mindfulness could rather be seen as a development of the assemblage of ideas and practices known as “modernist” or “Protestant” Buddhism — a reform movement born out of the meeting of Asian Buddhism and Western colonialism and missionary activities during the 19th Century. The taken for granted, but often undeclared, ontology at the base of secular (or crypto Buddhist) mindfulness also includes notions of unmediated perception or direct, “bare” attention have been highly controversial also within the Buddhist tradition.

Mindfulness and Mindlessness opens with a discussion of Buddhism and depression, based on an essay by the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere (Obeyeseker 1985), where a contemporary, Western description of depression, placing a “generalization of hopelessness” at the core of the disorder, is juxtaposed with an orthodox (Theravada) Buddhist outlook. The similarities are striking, but Obeyesekere’s (and Sharf’s) point is obviously not that Sri Lankan Buddhists would be depressed (in a modern, Western sense of the word), or that the purpose of their religion is to bring on clinical depression. Obeyeseker suggests, rather, that the experience of hopelessness and loss in Western society exists in a free-floating manner, while it in different social contexts (in this case a traditional Theravada Buddhist one) is anchored to a shared ideology or a common philosophical and cultural context. I will not go into the cross-cultural implications of this comparison, interesting and important as they are12, but rather use it as a starting-point for a short discussion of how the popular, Western image of Buddhism has changed over time.

It is not that long ago since Western textbooks would describe Buddhism as a life-denying, pessimistic, or even nihilistic religion. While it is easy to dismiss such descriptions today, we should perhaps ask ourselves if the current popular image of Buddhism has not gone too far in the opposite direction. Even before the success of mindfulness, Buddhism was often presented as a kind of “happiness project,” symbolized by laughing monks rather than emaciated ascetics. This is a version of Buddhism which allows an affluent audience to enjoy its privileges while, at the same time, upholding a detached, cynical distance towards the vicissitudes of samsaric existence, which is why philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2001b) has described Western Buddhism as the “perfect ideological supplement” to capitalist dynamics. Hardly surprising, it is also this kind of Buddhism which has inspired today’s mindfulness.

Meditation, which in most Buddhist traditions was an activity engaged in by only a small elite of religious specialists and ascetics with the explicit purpose of cutting all ties with the world, is here presented as a method for improving our professional life and romantic relationships (not to mention golf swings!). Sharf reminds us that the orthodox, Theravada outlook can be described as rather dark: to be alive means that we are suffering; the only way out is liberation from saṃsara which demands that we abandon all hope of finding happiness in worldly existence. As a contrast to current, sanguine ideas of meditation, he goes on to quote a passage from Buddhaghosa’s classic Visuddhimagga with its descriptions of the fearful stages (so-called dukkha nana) advanced yogis traverse before attaining final liberation.13 Even though one should be careful not to take classical meditation manuals too literally (cf. Sharf 1995b), it is worth considering that the canonical literature often describe the Buddhist path as one filled with fear and loathing, and that the idea of Buddhist meditation as remedy for depression, chronic pain, substance abuse, personality disorders and whatnot, is an entirely new phenomenon.

Like many other critics of mindfulness, Sharf admits that it may have some therapeutic value, and he mentions the “substantial body of empirical (if contested) data, that suggest it does.” He adds, though, that many years’ contact with experienced meditators has made him skeptical; not only do they exhibit behaviors at odds with common notions of what constitutes mental health—even more important, perhaps, is that they likely “do not aspire to our model of mental health in the first place.” And this, Sharf concludes, is a real challenge when we want to understand the connection between Buddhist meditation and its desired outcome.14

When the continuity between the Buddhist tradition and today’s mindfulness is emphasized, one is often reminded that “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term “sati” which is a central concept within canonical Buddhism. The English word seems to be a reasonable enough translation, even though “sati” literally means “memory” or “remembrance” (cf. Gethin 2011). As this memory often has to do with remembering one’s goals as a Buddhist practitioner, the term could possibly also be translated as “alignment” or something similar. Within “modernist” Buddhism and among mindfulness practitioners, however, there has been a strong tendency to interpret sati/mindfulness as “bare awareness”. One example would be the descriptions of mindfulness as a kind of “pure witnessing” or “observing self” that is something radically different than thinking itself.

Sharf points out that this approach to meditation as a “non-judgmental, non-discursive attending to the moment-to-moment flow of consciousness” has a long history in Buddhism; it can be found in the Chan/Zen15 and Dzogchen traditions, and it was prominent in the “modernist” interpretation of the Theravada school which is the foundation of contemporary Vipassana practice. It is important to know, however, that this tendency has been controversial and that it, contrary to what is commonly assumed today, cannot be said to be representative of the entire Buddhist tradition.

Sharf also suggests that the underlying ideology of mindfulness could be seen as an example of what scholars of religion call “perennialism.” (This is the idea that mystics in all times and places have had access to a common experience which is “unconstructured” and not conditioned by social, cultural, historical and linguistic influences.) Today’s mindfulness seems to be particularly influenced by a version of perennialism which Sharf calls the “filter theory”—an almost logophobic idea that our normal, conditioned discursive processes do not connect us with reality but rather function as a filter, locking us out from it. The purpose of a contemplative practice, then, is understood as a kind of radical de-conditioning, rather than the re-conditioning or gradual change in perspective and outlook that characterizes more traditional, monastic forms of Buddhist practice.

And here, I would suggest, we find a clue to the anti-intellectualism that has been the target for much SNB critique: (https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2011/10/25/buddhist-anti-intellectualism/) Both “religious” x-buddhist as well as “secular” mindfulness discourses revolve around the notion that the roots of human suffering are to be found in destructive, individual patterns of thought, but have curiously little to say about the art of thinking better. The solution rather seems to be to create a distance to one’s own thoughts, or even to think less (as if that were possible). Thinking itself is seen (thought of!) as a hindrance.

In an insightful comment on “Mindfulness or Minlessness”, Tom Pepper (co-author of Wallis et al. 2013), points out that the ideal of “bare awareness” presupposes some kind of uncreated, eternal, and transcendent soul or atman. For anyone who doesn’t subscribe to such beliefs, the promise of attaining any kind of mindful awareness sub specie aeternitatis, must appear fraudulent or at least misleading. A person engaging in this kind of futile exercise will either experience it as a failure, or “succeed”—but only by mistaking “the watcher” or “observing self” for some kind of transcendental awareness.

The perennialist and quietist ideology shared by much Western Buddhism and the mindfulness movement is not simply a question of abstract, metaphysical, sometimes mystified, assumptions. It also has a practical and political side, and with references to Arendt, Levinas, and the Japanese “Critical Buddhism” movement, Sharf suggests that this quietist, perennialist ideology has an “ethically dubious and politically reactionary” side. As an example, he mentions Tricycle Magazine with its advertisements for all kinds of “dharmic” commodities and the similar entrepreneurial and commercial spirit with which mindfulness programs are marketed.

 

In Conclusion

After presenting a number of critical perspectives on the mindfulness phenomenon, it seems appropriate to end with a few words about the counter-arguments put forward by representatives of the mindfulness movement.

The most common response to the kind of critiques presented here seems to be the assertion that, in the final analysis, mindfulness actually works. Suffering people are really being helped by practicing these techniques, we are being told. Never mind that it is less than clear as how or why this is, or even what is meant by “mindfulness”, or if the different forms or applications have little in common except for the mana-like, suggestive label itself. Mindfulness “works,” even though (or, perhaps, just because) it helps shaping exactly the kind of obedient, quietist, detached subjects needed by the market. It “works,” even though expensive mindfulness retreats and courses are marketed in the same vulgar and hyper-active way as any other commodity. Mindfulness “works,” even though it is not what we are told (“The essence of Buddhist wisdom,” “2,500 years old techniques for attaining harmony and joy”). It “works,” even though “non-judgmental awareness” untainted by social, cultural, and linguistic influences is an impossibility, or would require some kind of soul or atman … And so on, and so on.

Relatively few critics of mindfulness have challenged this claim that mindfulness “works.” Indeed, the idea that “meditation is good for you” has become so axiomatic that it would seem absurd to question it. Which is obviously a good reason to do exactly that.

The “growing body of evidence” to the efficacy of mindfulness mentioned by Sharf, is often invoked by representatives of the mindfulness movement. But although there exists an abundance of scientific studies which seems to confirm the claims of the mindfulness industry, there are also good reasons to take these claims with a grain of salt. Meta-studies mention several methodological flaws (including research bias, a lack of active reference groups, and insufficient attention to placebo effects). Willougby Britton (Heuman 2014), a meditation researcher at Brown University Medical School, confirms the problematic nature of many such studies, and also mentions adverse effects of meditation practice, such as depression, confusion, and depersonalization, which until recently have received only scant attention in the scientific literature.

Another, naïve but surprisingly common, argument is that mindfulness in itself is a “pure” or neutral technique (but that its critics are motivated by some sinister agenda, or “ideology”). An obvious response would be that there simply is no such thing as mindfulness-in-itself, but that these practices, approaches, and ideals always are embedded in the greater social and cultural context where they become meaningful. They have a very specific history, and could also be seen as an expression of an ideology, often hidden behind layers of mystification.

Let me end on a personal note. I am obviously very skeptical towards the mindfulness phenomenon, and I find some aspect of the mindfulness industry quite repulsive. Even so, I’ve been a bit hesitant to attack an activity which, besides the obvious charlatans and peddlers of snakeoil, many well-meaning and sometimes idealistic individuals. But, as sociologist Roland Paulsen (2008) writes about a similar phenomenon, it is an important task to “critically analyze their frauds and castles in the air and call them by their right names.” I hope this contribution can serve to ignite a critical discussion—If mindfulness really has something of value to offer, its proponents won’t have anything to lose, except a number of cherished illusions.

 

Footnotes

1 Buddhism as a projection screen for Western dreams and ideals (even scientific ones) is nothing new. See for example See for example Lopez 2008 and 2012.

2 See Iwamura (2011) for a discussion of the fetishization of the “Oriental Monk”.

3 See for example the special issue of Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal (2011, 12: 1) (Here is a useful tool if you don’t have access to the articles through a library). This issue is devoted mindfulness and contains contributions by both practitioners and outside commentators from different disciplines. Plank (2011) contains a criticism of some aspects of secular mindfulness and relates the phenomenon to Swedish conditions, as does Drougge (2014).

5 Behind this site is “The Foundation for a Mindful Society,” which later also started publishing Mindfulness Magazine. That magazine can be described as a kind of counterpart to Yoga Journal (or perhaps Runner’s World), and has close links with similar, popular Buddhist magazines like Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. The editorial board for “The Foundation for a Mindful Society” includes Jon Kabat-Zinn.

6 Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America contains long lists of mindfulness publications with titles sounding as if they were inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of Tutteji Wachtmeister.

7 “Lovingkindness” is a common English translation of the Buddhist concept of metta, which incorporates both an empathetic, sympathetic approach and specific meditation practices with the aim to cultivate these qualities. We should also note the emergence of “compassion focused therapy,” a “new integrative psychotherapy approach based on learning theory, affect theory, evolutionary theory, attachment theory, affective neuroscience and Buddhist psychology” (Andersson and Viotti 2013: 223). Just as with “mindfulness”, it is also interesting that one chooses to use the untranslated English term (“compassion”) when an adequate Swedish word is available.

8 ”An ‘empty’ or ‘floating signifier’ is variously defined as a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified. Such signifiers mean different things to different people: they may stand for many or even any signifieds; they may mean whatever their interpreters want them to mean.” (Chandler, n.d.)

9 Discussion about the article has played out on several blogs and websites, with the participation of both “religious” and “secular” Buddhists as well as mindfulness practitioners. Here is a selection:
American Buddhist Perspective (Justin Whitaker)
Dispirited (David Webster)
Mindfulness Matters (Arnie Kozak)
Off the Cushion (Rev. Danny Fisher)
Secular Buddhist Association (Mark Knickelbine)
The Existential Buddhist (Seth Zuihō Segall)

10 Lopez (2012) argues, for example, that many forms of Buddhist meditation seem rather to be intended to evoke a kind of existential crisis, and that therefore they should rather be described as a way to create stress than as a means of relieving it.

11 A written version was later published in Transcultural Psychiatry and can be found here. http://buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu/people/faculty/sharf/documents/Sharf%20Is%20Mindfulness%20Buddhist.pdf See also Sharf 2014.

12 For an insightful elaboration on Sharf’s paper and Obeyeseker’s essay, see Tom Pepper’s ”Nirvana and Depression” (in Pepper 2013, available here).

13 Interestingly enough, there has been a growing interest within certain groups of (predominantly younger, North American) convert Buddhists in these stages, which are considered unavoidable and which are commonly referred to with a concept borrowed from St. John of the Cross: ”the dark noght of the soul” (cf. Ingram 2008). These Dukkha nana are often described in terms which sounds like clinical descriptions of depression, anxiety, and depersonalization. Some meditation researchers have also showed an interest in this “dark side of meditation”.

14 My own research among Zen Buddhist contemplatives in the US and Japan confirms Sharf’s observation, but I would add that the hope of improving psychological health and emotional well-being often seems to be an important motivation for taking up meditation practice, even within a monastic regimen.

15 See Hori 2000 for a problematizing discussion about the notion of “pure” or “prediscursive” awareness in the context of orthodox Rinzai Zen. In my own research, I’ve also noticed that the word ”mindfulness” is used fairly often, but that it has less to do with a detached, inward focus than its opposite: paying attention to the task at hand, be it zazen meditation or normal, everyday tasks.

 

References

Andersson, Christina & Sofia Viotti 2013. Introduktion till Compassionfokuserad terapi och Compassion Mind Training. Socialmedicinsk tidskrift 90(2): 222–226.

Bodhi, Bhikku. 2011. What Does Mindfulness Really Mean? A Canonical Perspective. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(01): 19–39.

Carrette, Jeremy & Richard King. 2005. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London: Routledge.

Chandler, David. (n.d.) Semiotics for Beginners (Online version of the author’s Semiotics: The Beginnings) Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 2011. 12:1.

Drougge, Per. 2014. Lost in Translation: Om sekulär mindfulness och buddhism. In: Moberg, Jessica & Göran Ståhle (eds.) Helig hälsa: Helandemetoder i det mångreligiösa Sverige. Stockholm: Dialogos.

Gethin, Rupert. 2011. On Some Definitions of Mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12(1): 263–279.

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*Per Drougge is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University. His research has focused on globalization of Buddhism, the formation of “Western Buddhism,” and the assemblage of idea(l)s and practices known as “modernist Buddhism.” Drougge also has an interest in medical anthropology, and has written about the relation between secular mindfulness and Buddhist meditation, as well as naikan, a very different form of “Buddhist psychotherapy.” Beginning in the late 1980s, Drougge also spent close to 20 years engaged in formal Zen practice in Sweden USA, and Japan.

Private website: http://www.perdrougge.se/

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