Reality and Retreat

Does anyone have any interest in conducting a bit of research into a question that has haunted this blog for years: what kind of collective subject is the Western Buddhist?

I don’t mean scholarly research here, but a more anthropological approach involving participation in a specific Western Buddhist practice, the “online retreat.”

Shambhala is currently broadcasting such a retreat, free for this week only (with, of course, the hope that participants will pay the $147 to get copies of the recordings). The link is:

What I have in mind here is not any attempt to disrupt or influence the retreat or its discussion. Like good anthropologists we would need to remain relatively unnoticed. I also am not interested in debating the teachings, in catching them out in errors or contradictions, etc. The goal I have in mind is simply to discuss the teachings presented, and the comments posted, and try to decipher what kind of a collective subject is being produced by this discourse.

I can try to respond to some of the recordings—but there will be three a day, and surely thousands of comments. So I would guess any clear conceptualization of the kind of discourse this is could only be done by multiple participants.

To begin, perhaps just look at the two short “preview” recordings posted yesterday. Holly Gayley offers her advice on avoiding the pursuit of “bliss” or a “bubble of peace” on the cushion. She suggests that the task of meditation is to realize that the “discourses” or “spinning thoughts” or “rehearsed scripts” we participate in every day are a mask for a “deep” underlying core of pain, and the task is to “relate to that pain.” What kind of subject is produced when we think of our world this way—instead of, say, conceiving of those social discourses as the “real” that causes this internal sense of pain, we are taught to think of these discourses as relatively insignificant products of the already existing deep pain?

Gayley suggests that those who frequent meditation retreats get to be “really familiar with” these “spinning thoughts” and “rehearsed scripts.” Perhaps this gives us some clue to the function of this practice? To reify and externalize the social discourses, and produce some kind of discourse in which one can remove from them and do…what exactly?

Then Rick Hanson suggest exactly the opposite: that in fact the task of meditation is to produce exactly this state of peace and calm that Gayles warns won’t occur. For Hanson, what he calls the “green zone” of “unshakeable happiness love and peace” is what we must accomplish to begin meditation. We should, he says, feel “already full” so that we can “default to the resting state” where “nothing is missing.” He calls this a “scientifically plausible way to a state of being with little basis for craving.” We should conceive of ourselves in a sort of behaviorist stimulus-response manner, resting in contentment until we are provoked to unpleasant thought and action by some lack, then returning to our blissful inertia once the lack is met. What kind of subject is produced by thinking of ourselves this way…instead of, perhaps, considering the interaction with the world as a source of joy?

Both of these teachers, clearly, have an understanding of the concept of emptiness: for both, what is dependently arisen is “unsubstantial” or illusory, and what is real (because not dependently arisen either socially of phenomenally) is the core of our deeper feelings and perceptions. But the concern here is not to debate whether this is the “correct understanding.” Rather, the interest is to trace the kinds of subjects such beliefs lead to when used to structure these specific practices.

We could also consider the discourse of the comments. Those writing introductory comments seem to be suspiciously distributed (only a few from New York, for instance, and just as many from distant lands and small cities in the Midwest or Southwest), heavily weighted with therapists of various kinds, and fond of the terms “path” and “journey.”

My main interest, though, is in discussing the fifteen recordings (perhaps along with any discussion that might follow in comments). Clearly, I can’t address them all, but I’ll try to address a couple of them. Anyone interested in contributing, just email me (, and I’ll add your contribution to this post, instead of putting it in the comments. The goal here, though, is not to argue with the teachers, but to try to describe the kind of collective x-buddhist subject being (re)produced by this now familiar Western Buddhist form of practicing: the online retreat.

The implied promise of this online retreat is that it will teach us to use meditation to get a clearer grasp on reality.  But perhaps we can consider it from outside its World, and discuss what kind of reality this practice works to produce?


After Day One:

One interesting point in this retreat is how explicit it is about what Master Tutte always tried to teach us about Western Buddhism: it is mostly a marketing ploy, trying to sell us…well, more marketing ploys…and so on, and so on… With the promise, apparently, that eventually we will buy that book or that pricey retreat that will qualify us to start selling our own bestselling books. This idea of marketing nothing but empty promises does seem to be one of the major functions of the term “Buddhism” in America.

But still, there is a certain kind of subject for whom such practices are operative. I’m still trying to figure out exactly who that is, and what kind of things they do, or avoid doing, in the world.

The big question, that Ryan Stagg asks and the presenters repeat, is “how does mediation help us access reality.” The idea that “reality” is something that must be “accessed” with some special procedure is a particularly modern one, so it seems we have a modern/capitalist subject of some variety. From the scientific method to deconstruction, we moderns always understand our common way of engaging the world as somehow missing what is most important, and the technique of breaking through it to how things really are promises greater happiness and freedom.

There also seems to be a central loneliness or sense of profound isolation and emptiness, in both the presenters and those commenting. The many comments about being alone, and having no group to practice with, or the frequent mentions of some loss or rejection as the motivation to practice meditation. And the sheer desperation of the teachers to sell those books, to reach the broadest audience, to be popular no matter what kind of nonsense they have to spout to get that spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

Wright seems a bit confused and desperate, like he feels the meaninglessness and absurdity of his reductivism and wants someone to tell him how smart he is for explaining it, like he needs some contact that exceeds his ostensible belief that we are all just mechanisms to reproduce genes.
Piver puts on the most polished show, sitting cross-legged in her gauzy dress and denim jacket, repeating vague metaphors that say nothing at all. She seems so tightly wound that one is almost afraid that if Ryan pointed out to her that she answers only in vague metaphors and cliches she might snap. Or just drop the name of her exotic sounding teacher a few more times?


I have one suggestion, so far: the variety in the presentations seems to function as a kind of complete circle, each teacher taking a different side to circle the subject within, and all seeking to ward off different approaches of that one threat: serious thought about the real causal power of social structures. This is, of course, what the neoliberal subject can’t tolerate: the idea that the system we live in, the social practices we collectively produce, might be collectively changed.

So Piver tells us that “from nowhere” something cuts in and tells us “you’re thinking. You wake up. Where does that come from? I don’t know the answer.”

What kind of a subject do we become if we accept this? If we accept that the thought that you were thinking is not itself a thought—that the only thing that counts as thoughts are those random things that go through our mind without efforful control? And she says that this interruption comes from the “same place” as “love and wisdom and insight and creativity.” She has no idea where that “place” might be, but it is certainly the source of anything good—all those terms valued positively in Romantic discourse, that arrive once we stop thinking, and are beyond our control. All, of course, terms we can never define (what is creativity? Wisdom?), but just know are vaguely good things that cannot possibly be produced intentionally in social practices.

Wright wards off the social from the other side, with a kind of popular pseudoscience. He assures us that everything is a matter of biology (it isn’t mystical gifts of creativity from some spirit world here, but the demands of a reductive mechanistic causality made possible by the frequent use of scare quotes to avoid the need for real explanations). Wright’s subject is the perfect neoliberal, envisioning the world as beginning in scarcity and competition, a vicious struggle for survival. Buddhism functions then as a substitute for Hobbes’s state, allowing us to cause a bit less suffering to each other as we each pursue our biologically determined desires.

Wright’s idea of the Buddhist concept of nonself is telling in this regard. He understands it to mean that we have no control over…well, anything. Our thoughts, our actions, everything is mechanistically determined, and our thoughts are pointless epiphenomena invented after the fact for no apparent reason. This subject powerless over forces beyond any control, isolated and at best hoping not to cause too much suffering to others, still seems to be lacking something…

It would seem that the gaze that would promise this atomistic and powerless subject a future reward, or reassure them they are special in the present, can only come in the form of book sales and an audience willing to shell out their $147 dollars…

But the one thing that all these teachers guard agains is the consideration of how social practices might produce part of our delusions and desires. That, and the terrifying possibility that we might, in some kinds of social formations, get some enjoyment out of impermanent things like work and engaging in the world. That they might be enjoyable exactly because of their impermanence. What if something like planting crops or building a house or playing music were enjoyable exactly because it doesn’t go on endlessly? The inability to think that meaning might come from the social, rather than biology or the mysterious beyond, suggests a kind of desperate, non-functioning, idle subject.

“This is a rich disagreement!”

Tom Pepper’s original idea was to publish an e-mail interview with me to mark the half million hit mark on the blog. That number came and went, and we were still carrying on our conversation. That’s what it is, really. It started out as an interview but quickly became a two-way dialogue. And that’s how it should be.

Tom Pepper (TP): To begin with, what did you hope to “get conversation going” about?  Who did you imagine the interlocutors mighIncite1t be?

Glenn Wallis (GW): I wanted to initiate an intervention, like you do with a wayward alcoholic. The blog would be the space where all of us concerned relatives gather together with Buddhism and confront it with questions like “do you see what you’ve become? how can you continue like this?” We’d tell Buddhism, “you’re hurting yourself and embarrassing all of us.” You know, and, “you have so much potential, yet look at you!” We wouldn’t let Buddhism leave the blog until it vowed to sober up. As you can probably tell from this account, I expected interlocutors who had two basic qualifications. One, they had been hanging out with Buddhism for a long, long time, getting drunk with it, maybe. Two, they, too, were eventually fed up with Buddhism’s poor behavior. I assumed that many of Buddhism’s old friends were growing as tired of its dual personality as I was—both its monotonous, bossy, grumpy traditional side and its facile and fawning contemporary side.  

TP: You were supposed to be working on a book at the time, right?  Did that have anything to do with starting the blog?  To keep the book project moving? To escape it?  

GW: I had just abandoned a project that several major publishers had been showing interest in. It was a biography of the Buddha. I had spent a good year on the proposal for this book. The more I researched it, however, the less feasible the project seemed. In fact, I began to think that it was outright irresponsible to pursue the biography at all. There are simply no reliable data for the kind of marketable reconstruction the publishers wanted to see. I realized a few things at this point. I began to question my previous liberal humanist attempts to “translate” Buddhism into a contemporary western idiom. That project is not in itself so bad; it’s just drastically incomplete. What was lacking was a critical component. So, I actually wrote up a version of the proposal that combined an honest assessment of the data with my own critical analysis of what it all meant to us today. Let’s just say it was not a pretty picture. That Buddha is just too dark and ascetic for the likes of us modern American happiness seekers. It would be like replacing your Aunt Betty’s painting of smiling, big-toothed, white-faced, wavy-haired Jesus with Georges Rouault’s sad-eyed, brooding, filthy, and tormented Christ. So, my agent and I agreed to put the whole thing to rest. But it was in that charged atmosphere that the blog was conceived. Continue reading ““This is a rich disagreement!””

Alienation and Its Antidotes


Alienation and Its Antidotes:
Anthony Paul Smith on the thought of François Laruelle

Ffirstlightrançois Laruelle is one of the most trenchant thinkers today. With his “non-philosophy,” he offers us explosive techniques for ferreting out the self-alienating forces at the very heart of our thought and world. His method, however, is not yet another exercise in personal actualization and social positivity. It may sow seeds of utopianism; but its seeds are soaked in a clear-eyed pessimism. It may reveal a universe of promise; but it is an unmistakably black universe. The overall effect is of a strange yet acutely vital form of life, thought, and practice.

Anthony Paul Smith, Ph.D., is the preeminent translator of Laruelle’s French works into English. He is assistant professor in the Religion Department of La Salle University, in Philadelphia. As indicated by the title of his recent book, Ecologies of Thought: Thinking Nature in Philosophy, Theology, and Ecology, Anthony works at the intersection of several disciplines, including philosophy, non-philosophy, theology, religious studies, and scientific ecology.

The workshop will combine presentation of concepts with lively group discussion.

Time: September 23, Saturday, from 10am-3pm.
Cost: $95
Place: Cultureworks, 1315 Walnut St, Suite 320, Philadelphia, PA 19107


No Thought, No Problem

IMG_0021An interesting but rarely discussed puzzle: in those social formations in which we are most certain that language and thought are devoid of all causal powers, we become most terrified of them and eager to escape their unbearable power over us.

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the standard x-buddhist assumption that thinking and language are the source of all suffering, and the retreat into pure non-conceptual perception or affect would restore us to some original state of endless orgasmic bliss (the state we apparently will enter permanently if we can only become sufficiently indifferent to the illusory phenomenal world around us). However, the paradoxical discourse about the oppressive ill effects of language and thought (of, that is, discourse) is not limited to Western Buddhism. It seems that the popularity of various x-buddhisms might in fact be a result of their echoing of this powerful trope, so important to the success of global capitalist ideology. If only all people could be convinced that thinking is both the real cause of all their suffering, and that they can stop doing it if they try hard enough, just imagine how much more easily the 98% could be managed.

This terror of thought has been addressed to some extent in everything I’ve ever written for this blog, from my first posts on anti-intellectualism and Buddhist therapy to the most recent on mindfulness and Locke’s invention of “consciousness.” So why raise it yet again? In part, there are personal reasons. Continue reading “No Thought, No Problem”

Buddhism in the Age of Trump

Sign up now!lady-liberty-in-shame
Begins June 13, 2017

What should a socially-aware person make of Buddhism today? It presents itself as the treasure house of enlightened ideas and practices that were formulated by a gifted teacher who lived in India twenty-five hundred years ago. Followers of Buddhism, east and west, tell us that this man’s teachings accurately identify the real conditions of human existence. If true, that is quite a remarkable achievement. It would mean that an ancient diagnosis of human experience still pertains in our hyper-accelerated, ultra-technological modern society. It also suggests that Buddhist thought contains antidotes or even solutions for negotiating both our zombie-like consumer-capitalist system and our current political catastrophe. Is such a correspondence possible? Does Buddhism have anything of consequence to teach us today?
Continue reading “Buddhism in the Age of Trump”

Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life

John Cage, “The Return: Bearing Gifts to the Village.” Zen Ox-herding Image #10

By Jonathan Earle*

My conversion to Buddhism happened in a church bathroom.

I remember flushing the toilet and watching the water disappear to who-knows-where. I scrubbed my hands and examined my face in the mirror, thinking, “I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.”1 Becoming a Buddha would take my whole life, surely. I imagined a path spiraling out endlessly before me. It was a terrifying and exciting thought. I guess I would call that my, “conversion experience.”

I must have been thirteen years old. I was in the bathroom of the local Unitarian Church at a Friday evening meeting of the Springwind Zen Center.2  I had gone to several meetings by this time. They usually consisted of sitting meditation for twenty minutes, walking meditation for ten, sitting another twenty, and then a discussion with the group’s leaders Troy and Carlo. I didn’t quite get the point of meditation and I didn’t quite get the point of the strange, circular kind of language Zen people use to talk about what they do, but there was something that they possessed and I lacked. They: Those wild, old Zen men from the kōans.3  I was fascinated by stories of these masters performing miracles and giving laconic answers to enigmatic questions. I was captured by the mystique,4 believing it to be profound. Even my American Zen teachers seemed to be completely at home in a radically different way of seeing and being in the world. What had they figured out that I hadn’t? I supposed it could be summed up with the one word, “enlightenment.” In the bathroom that evening, Continue reading “Only Don’t Know! Reflections on a Thoughtless Life”

Mindfulness, Yet Again

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

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

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

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

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

It might seem, because Thatcher is critical of mindfulness, that I would agree with her Continue reading “Mindfulness, Yet Again”

Philosophical Concepts for Thinking

Time to Register!seminar

Our next seminar begins April 5.

Philosophical Concepts for Thinking

Hannah Arendt famously condemned Adolf Eichmann not for being an inhuman monster who methodically arranged Nazi death camp logistics. No, she condemned him for being all-too-human in his refusal or inability to think. Are we thinking today? This seminar is a kind of smorgasbord of Continue reading “Philosophical Concepts for Thinking”

Buddhofascism: B. Alan Wallace, for instance

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. Continue reading “Buddhofascism: B. Alan Wallace, for instance”

Slogging Through Buddhist Writing

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).
Continue reading “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing”