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: https://online.shambhalamountain.org/reality

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, Continue reading “Reality and Retreat”

“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

INCITE SEMINARS
ONE-DAY WORKSHOP

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
REGISTER HERE

inciteseminars

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

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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”