Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

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.  The same critique applies to arguments like those made in Buddha’s Brain by Hanson and Mendius and in Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, or in Sam Harris’s Waking Up, as well as a host of other such works too numerous to list.  Some readers may wonder (some have already asked) if this is not an example of setting up a straw man to avoid dealing with those other works.  After all, I’ve been told, Young is evidently a bit dim and quite obviously wrong in just about everything he says.  Nobody of average intelligence would ever take him seriously, so arguing against him is, well, like debating with the Long Island Medium: his game is the same kind of grift as hers, and even bothering to point this out to people is embarrassing.  I can see this point, but consider this: if this is the case (and I suspect just about all readers of this site would agree it is) doesn’t it make it more troubling that the basic assumptions Young begins from and the conclusions he reaches are shared by so many people?

So don’t fear, I won’t waste your time pointing out factual inaccuracies and flawed reasoning in Young’s rather inane book.  What I want to focus on are the assumptions he can take for granted, and that most people in our culture would probably share without hesitation.  Because if we begin with them, and stick to them, we ought to all wind up where Young does.

And I hope that this is troubling enough to make us stop and rethink these assumptions.


Enlightenment is just a toke away!

Young’s paradigmatic example of what he means by enlightenment, which he repeatedly calls “classical enlightenment,” is the experience he had in his younger days of dropping acid, then smoking some pot and eating a brownie.  Here’s part of his account:

I really got into that brownie.  For a few minutes I entered a state of samadhi…I became so focused on the act of eating the brownie that everything else fell away…There were holes in the brownie caused by gas bubbles…As I bit into the brownie, I could clearly detect the diffuse texture of the cake, the dense envelope around the holes, and the nothingness inside the hole.  I remember thinking, “The holes taste as good as the cake.”  At that moment, the duality of existence versus nonexistence passed away, and for a moment I was thrust into a world of oneness. (9, emphasis in the original).

Now, most of us of a certain age can remember those experiences of getting high and having a euphoric enjoyment of junkfood.  But most of us also later realized that this was a drug-induced highjacking of the reward system of the brain, and did not correspond to any profound insight into the nature of reality. Clearly enough, the hole in a brownie is not the same as emptiness—it isn’t even a good analogy or metaphor for emptiness in the Buddhist sense.  Young however was, and remains, certain that this was exactly what the ancient Buddhist texts must have meant by enlightenment, and that he had a “micro-taste of enlightenment” that day.  His goal became, then, to return to that state of mind-addled euphoric sensory experience.

His strategy for reaching enlightenment, therefore, is to reach a state in which we can experience the world only as a series of intensely pleasant sensory experiences.  Happiness, he insists, must be “independent of conditions,” a point he repeats often.  Young tells us that the “thinking mind and feeling body…become a prison within which most people spend their lives”(42), and the only solution, oddly enough, is to cut out the thinking part and limit ourselves to the sensory.  Although he repeats the tired clichés about the Buddhist concept of impermanence meaning that all reality is mere illusion, the goal of meditation becomes to achieve a state of pure and direct perception of phenomenal reality, unmediated by thought:

When you let impermanence work on you, the energy in its waves an vibrations softens the substance of consciousness, works out knots in your soul…you can feel your senses being scoured by the Flow of impermanence. The cleansing of the doors of perception is not a poetic metaphor, it’s a palpable reality.(115)

Now, I promised not to get too involved in Young’s poor thinking, so I won’t bother unpacking the problems here or elsewhere. The larger point is that his project is one of absolute resignation to the world as it is, in which our only hope of happiness is to limit ourselves to pleasant sensations, which will happen once we can purely and fully perceive the world without any interference of thought.  The similarity to mindfulness in general should be clear enough to readers here; we won’t bother to rehearse the arguments about the impossibility of such “pure perception,” never mind the questionable value of achieving pure and objective perception of an illusion.  (It might also be worth noting that Harris’s model of enlightenment, in Waking Up, also begins with a drug experience, and also passes through convoluted discussion of consciousness and self before concluding that full acceptance of the sensory present is what is meant by awakening).

The goal, for Young as for all the reductivist x-buddhists, is to idealize a state of passive resignation to the current state of affairs.  Any attempt to change our social system, for example, only leads to suffering and oppression, and worse it requires thought, which is the most horrifying thing of all.  We must achieve some kind of resigned indifference to the world in order to be able to perceive even the most unpleasant phenomena as blissful sensory stimuli.

Consider Young’s example of how we might more mindfully interact with another person (I think it is fairly typical of accounts I have heard from dozens of mindfulness teachers):

For example, you can practice meditation while talking to someone…by intently focusing on the sight and sounds of that person…Another way would be to monitor, in a state of high concentration, your mental and emotional reactions to that person…Yet another way…would be to intentionally create loving-kindness emotion in our body, and then taste an expansive flavor of concentration by spreading that pleasant body sensation out into the room, enveloping your interlocutor with love. (35)

The key point here is that we at all costs avoid actually attending to any meaning the person might be trying to convey!  Young repeatedly reminds us to think of words as just sounds, not different from any other sounds, and to think of our emotions as a kind of sensory experience.  So, whether we fully experience the person talking to us by ignoring their meaning and carefully attending to our sensory experiences, or by ignoring them altogether and carefully attending to our internal sensory states, we are reaching enlightenment because we have successfully avoided any dangerous meaningful social exchange—we have skirted the problem of the social and of meaning.  At the same time, we have learned to limit our action in the world to sending out good vibes.

This terror of social interaction sounds a lot like what we might call “autism spectrum,” or perhaps what used to be called schizoid personality disorder (I believe this diagnosis still exists, but those exhibiting the symptoms are now diagnosed as being on the more socially-acceptable autism spectrum).  It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, when in his final chapter Young offers us hope for a surgical enlightenment.  Such non-social solutions are the great hope of all of those unable to successfully interact in the human social world.  My suggestion is that this inability is increasingly the case for most of us; for this reason, we want to be assured that our problems are biological, to be treated with surgery or drugs.  If our problems are social, they might be curable, but that would require both thought and action on our part (including social interaction), something we are taught not only that we should not, but that we cannot really do.

Young’s dream of a sort of sophisticated lobotomy—one capable of removing all those “impurities” of the brain that lead us to do things like engage with others, speak, produce meaning in social interaction—sounds quite similar to the debates about the zombie problem in analytical philosophy.  He offers an example of a kind of brain injury in which someone loses the capacity for self-directed action, and sits doing nothing all day (“No self, no problem!” Young proclaims).  This particular kind of brain injury also tends to make the sufferer indifferent to their surroundings; they never complain of discomfort or boredom, and seem to be devoid of unpleasant sensations.  Young says that this example might indicate that a surgical enlightenment procedure is possible…but there’s something missing. It doesn’t seem to be quite what we’re after.  Just as in the debates about hypothetical zombies in analytical philosophy, the automaton that just responds to stimuli, even if in complex ways, seems to us to be somehow missing something important, even if we can’t quite figure out what it is.  We have the sense that there is a gap between the automaton and a human mind, and we can’t pinpoint exactly where it would be.

This problem is exactly as old as empiricism.  Once philosophy began to conceive of the world in mechanistic terms, as the interaction of physical objects, it became difficult to see how we could include things such as meaning and intention and the felt sense of the world—much less morality or aesthetic appreciation.  The task of philosophy has been the attempt to fill in this gap.  Young fills it in with dualism.  This material world (which he tells us repeatedly is the whole story, the mind just is neurobiology), well, it turns out to be mere illusion after all. The only thing truly and eternally real is something he calls “the Source,” a kind of transcendent soul that has no properties of extension (i.e., no mass or spatial dimension or existence in time), but is what we really and eternally always are.  For Young, and for his students, the contradiction in this position is invisible.  He has transcended duality, he tells us, by accepting absolute radical dualism!  If this seems contradictory or paradoxical, well then you just aren’t as deep as he is I guess.

But for the here and now, the answer is nothing so difficult as escaping the illusory phenomenal world.  We just need that bit about “the Source” to assure us we need not change “conditions,” we can’t change “conditions,” because they are illusions, and we only need to become detached from and indifferent to them.  Enlightenment is nothing but having pure and complete sensory experiences of this (illusory) phenomenal world.  Once we stop adding meaning, or thinking we can make changes in things like social conditions, we can begin to experience all sensory information blissfully, and we just are “classically Enlightened.”

For some people the question “what is enlightenment” might mean something like “how can I meaningfully interact with others and the world” or “how can I transform the conditions of our world so as to reduce suffering.”  Young’s solution is to change the question. Redefine “enlightenment” as “bodily comfort” and the answer becomes easy. In becomes inconceivable that seeking pleasure in these bodily experiences might just be what Buddhist thought was trying to argue was futile.  Instead, we think that when we are happy we “feel” good, so bodily pleasure must be the whole point.  This is a response, though, on the order of “just use a pencil.”  If seems to provide an answer, but only by ignoring the intent of the question.

This “use a pencil” strategy is common to all the reductive x-buddhists.  In Buddha’s Brain, Hanson and Mendius claim that Buddha looked into the “underlying activities of his brain”(12) to discover that we can control our attention in such a way as to produce “blissful concentration.” The brain both is the mind, and is a physical thing capable of being controlled by something additional to itself, a kind of deeper self that is capable of making the brain more “mindful” and insuring bodily comfort. This is possible because…well, there are “mysterious ways”(15) that the “ultimate underpinnings of reality” work.  In Mindfulness by Williams and Penman, we are assured that “we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary…we can experience [the world] directly through our senses” (11), and when we do we can thoroughly focus on our own bodily comfort and stop thinking and acting in any way that isn’t pleasurable.

For centuries now, the problem of how this mechanistic mind-in-the-brain can work has plagued us. It is generally now just dismissed as the insoluble mind-body problem.  Unless we add some magic somewhere, the account seems always to fail.  Despite centuries of trying, every reductive materialist approach needs to resort to some kind of “ghost in the machine” to complete the explanation of actual human thought and behavior.  The neuroscience approach is no different.

Yet we are very attached to it.  As I said earlier, no doubt many readers here will think that I’ve set up a straw-man by debating with something as silly as Shinzen Young’s particular spiritual grift.  Maybe…but I’m not so sure.  I would suggest that if you showed most people one of Young’s many video talks, the response would take one of two forms. Some people would be enamored of his great poetic genius, and gush over how deep and profound he is; but most of the rest would just be bored by him, and see him as offering trite truisms without much substance, too obvious to need repeating.

Few, if any, would react with impatience or outrage at the ideology being reproduced here. And that is because it is an ideology so pervasive we cannot see it at all.  The assumptions underlying Young’s book, and all other reductivist x-buddhisms, are so common we have lost our ability to question them.

But if we fail to question them, we are led inevitably to the same kinds of conclusions.  Specifically, to the idea that the best we can hope for is to adjust ourselves in such a way as to maximize bodily comfort in any conditions.  Because the conditions of our world are just beyond our ability to engage with, much less transform.  

Lockean Empiricism and the Invention of Consciousness and Self.

Most of this particular set of assumptions can be traced back to Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Our fundamental way of thinking about ourselves and the world were first formulated at that time.  Not by Locke alone of course, although his particular formulation of them was enormously influential.  I’m not suggesting here that Locke was a manipulative mastermind who spread wicked delusion and enslaved us all. Rather, the point is simply that Locke found a way to successfully formulate the dominant ideology of his time, an ideology already existing in practice. His very popularity was the result of his producing a discourse in which to conceptualize what everyone (or at least everyone in the rising capitalist class) was already doing. If it is true, as Edward Feser has argued, that “Locke is one of the key architects, maybe the architect, of distinctly modern ways of thinking,” this is because we all accept his fundamental assumptions, so that even if we disagree with Lockean empiricism, we think we can only disagree with it for Lockean empiricist reasons!

I want to offer a short list of some of Locke’s key assumptions (most of them shared by his contemporaries, some given unique form in Locke’s work).  My focus will be on those assumptions about the world that are of most importance to producing the kind of passive and quietist neoliberal ideology we find in the projects of the reductivist x-buddhists.  Then, I will suggest that these assumptions, and so this kind of ideology, is not limited to x-buddhists, but is pervasive in the western world.  Seeing where it comes from, it is hoped, might be a first step in abandoning the prison of hopeless bliss.

The Mechanistic World: For Lockean empiricism, the “real” world is one of matter, and all causality is of the “billiard ball” type.  Anything that can have a cause in the world is physical, and causes are the physical chain of reaction. If we mistakenly believe there are other causes, that is because we have accidentally been caused (by stimuli) to have incorrect associations in our brains.  These errors are on the order of seeing a crow fly overhead just before falling ill, and associating crows with illness.  All non-mechanistic causation is belived to be of this type, and so erroneous.

Absolute Atomism of Mind: Since our brains are physical matter, there are only two sources of thoughts: those derived from sense experience, and those built into the structure of our brain itself (such as the idea that three is more than two).  We derive all of our concepts through sense experience and “reflection,” before beginning to interact with other people (who are just other sensory phenomena to us). Locke takes as a starting point the belief that “individuals pre-exist society and that the individual is to be defined as, by nature, a property owner, albeit first of all the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities…with a natural propensity to unlimited accumulation” (Sanford, xli).  This in large part results from the need to reject the idea that we are produced by the social formation into which we are born—we must be conceived as complete individuals freely choosing to join in the social system we produce through the process of reflection following empirical experience.

Metalanguage: Locke was very insistent that thought is not dependent on language.  We have thoughts, and then put them into words.  Thought continues outside of language, in a kind of mentalese or private language or metalanguage.  This is crucial, because if our minds are atomistic, each one acquiring content by sensory interaction with the world, it is imperative that no ideas ever originate in social practices.  Many analytical philosophers still hold this position, and most people assume this is true in their daily lives.  Almost all students will say that they “know what they want to say,” but “can’t put it into words.”  Most people, and not just x-buddhists, will insist that language is a “barrier” between them and the world, distorting their pure and correct experience.  On the Lockean model, we all develop concepts, and languages, individually, then enter into a group by simply learning which word everyone else uses to refer to the concept we all derived from experience.  Individually, we all would have correct empirical knowledge of the world, but the demands of a shared language causes confusion and distortion. The idea that our construal of the world comes from language, that when we learn language we learn how to see the world, is ruled out without consideration.

Fatalism about the social system: We all accept that we cannot make changes to the social formation in which we live.  This follows from the point about atomism of minds.  We must be thought of as individual minds-in-brains created inevitably by sensory experiences, which will then naturally interact in the way such physical entities naturally would.  For Locke, this is crucial because if the goal is to remove the old social system produced by religion and feudalism, we wouldn’t want to suggest that we might rationally choose the best one for everyone.  Instead, we need to be convinced that the old order is a matter of mistaken associations leading to confusion, and the removing those errors leads inevitably to a free and natural society of competitive and acquisitive possessive individuals.  We can’t make a social system, we can only clarify our sensory information so as to adjust more successfully to the naturally occurring one.  For Locke, “free will” becomes simply a matter of removing the impediments to a correct response to stimuli.  Most Americans today are sure this is true: capitalism is a result of human nature, the economy is not a humanly created social practice but a force of nature we must adjust ourselves to.

There’s a lot more to Locke’s enormous Essay, but these are the key points for our discussion.  Clearly, these assumptions underly all the reductive X-buddhisms.  But just as clearly, these assumptions always lead to a kind of impossible contradiction.  There seems no way to get from empiricism to the human world as it actually is without allowing in some magical leap. Often, this takes the form of the rhetorical sleight-of-hand sometimes referred to as the homunculus problem; Hume famously pointed this out in his postscript to his Treatise.  Most people resort to “it’s just a grammatical necessity, not a contradiction,” but Hume had the intelligence and the nerve to admit it isn’t really—it’s a conceptual flaw.  I won’t go through all the arguments against such materialist reductionists—there are many powerful examples dismantling this belief in addition to Hume’s.  The response is usually of the “I use a pencil” variety: we can’t explain how the brain gives rise to such things as moral values or untrue beliefs, so we just say it has the power to do so, and leave it at that.

Locke was not quite happy to accept the “I use a pencil answer,” so he came up with a related but somewhat more complicated strategy.  He produced some key ideological concepts, necessary to his system, and convinced us all these were real things in the world in need of further clarification to fill in the gaps. Sort of like explaining the world as the creation of God, then spending centuries trying to decide just what kind of thing God really is.

Locke did believe in God, and a soul, but his empiricist philosophy wouldn’t work if he pushed the explanation to that level.  So he came up with the two related (and crucially, necessarily vague) concepts that have plagued us ever since: Consciousness and Self.

This might be startling at first. We all think these terms have been around forever, they simply must pick out something in the world (after all, we intuitively accept Locke’s theory of language, and can’t consider that a word might arise except by indicating a thing).  But they haven’t been around forever.  Both terms were neologisms in Locke’s work.  Neologisms he was forced into because there was no such concept available, and he needed something more to complete his philosophical system.  Before Locke, nobody ever thought they had a self, or that they were conscious—at least not in exactly the way we mean these things.

In Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness, Etienne Balibar details the invention of these concepts.  He explains that these concepts were part of Locke’s “anti-linguistic ‘turn’”: “Locke attempts here to square the circle, by forging a generic expression for self-reference in the first person which the self may make use of in order to think itself (or objectify itself) without leaving itself”(116).  The concept functions to resolve what is otherwise a fatal flaw in Locke’s system, and to enable the individual to remain atomistic, originating by interacting with a sensory (but never a social) world.  This concept was at first troubling to Locke’s readers and translators (no such concept seems to have appeared in other European languages, so the need to invent terms to translate self and consciousness arose).  But it didn’t take long before we all began using and thinking in these terms, without ever considering that we have no idea what we are saying when we use them.

In fact, it became the task of analytical philosophy to attempt to endlessly work at keeping these problematic terms, which we might call floating signifiers, from collapsing under the weight of their own meaninglessness.  And so we still see endless books and articles trying to discuss the real nature of “self” or “consciousness,” never making much progress, because they continue to mistake an ideological term for a thing in the mind-independent world, something we already have before we even notice that we do, and that we just need to work to get clear about, like a kidney or a brainstem.

Before moving on to some conclusions about how non-reductivist Buddhist thought might just help with this problem, let me offer one clear example from the American analytical philosophy to demonstrate how widespread and invisible this problem is.

Searle’s Solution to the Mind-Body Problem

John Searle has argued in a series of books over the past decade or so that he has radically revised the “traditional categories” in which philosophy has debated the mind-body problem.  In Mind: a brief introduction, he argues that if we eliminate talk of separate mental and physical domains, and realize that “consciousness is entirely causally explained by neural behavior but it is not thereby shown to be nothing but neuronal behavior”(119), then the entire problem is overcome.  He thinks this has avoided the great error of dualism as well as the intractable problems of reductivism, because the key point is that the mind just is exactly the state of the brain, but cannot be reduced to the brain.  And he manages this essentially by linguistic fiat: to reduce the mind to the brain is to talk about a something with first-person ontology in terms of third-person ontology, so it can’t be done.

Now, just as with Shinzen Young, I can already hear people proclaiming that I’m debating wth the weakest possible opponent, because this argument has flaws any philosopher worth listening to could point out instantly.  Of course it does. What could it possibly mean to say that something is identical to something else, but not reducible to it?  This is just sophistry.  The only way it could fail to be reducible is if there is some additional thing we mean by mind besides the brain state.  For example, a table is in one sense identical to the wood it is made of, but we can’t reduce it to the wood because the wood itself, absent the table-shape, wouldn’t be a place we can sit and have dinner.  There must be an added social function that prevents this reduction—and the “first person ontology” is just that, something in addition to the brain itself that occurs only in a social context (there could be no first-person quality if there were no other persons).  By discussing it in terms of “first-person ontology,” Searle is able to avoid this social dimension, and keep his concept of mind thoroughly reductivist, atomistic, and Lockean.

However, my point is that Searle’s arguments have an enormous following, and seem true and solid to most people. And this is because he has not really radically changed the terms of the debate at all. He has stuck quite closely to Locke’s terms throughout.  And Locke’s terms remain the terms in which most of us think about the world most of the time; they are the concepts of common sense.

Searle says that consciousness and intentionality (which are very close to the same thing, he tells us) are unique in that they are the only kinds of things in existence with a first-person ontology (120).  That alone might raise some flags. But he says, after two chapters and over 70 pages discussing “consciousness,” that

[o]f all the subjects discussed in this book, this is the one where I feel the greatest sense of inadequacy.  Consciousness is such a stunning and mysterious phenomenon that one always feels that the very effort to describe it in ordinary words somehow is not only bound to fail, but the very effort reveals a failure of sensibility. (157)

Perhaps the trouble is the attempt to explain an ideological concept as if it were a material thing?

He discusses free will, and can only decide there is a gap between the causes of our actions and the actions, and so the “problem of free will is going to be with us for a long time”(234). He discusses “self” in thoroughly Lockean terms, even defining his concept in its difference from Descartes, and focusing on the problem of “personal identity,” and concludes that “in order to account for free rational actions, we have to suppose there is a single entity X”(295).  The argument is that since free will, which we can’t explain, must exist, we must have some kind of a self, which we also can’t explain.

And in the end, we are left only with an answer on the order of “I use a pencil.”  If there is this gap between material causation and our actions, the solution is that there must be “the capacity to initiate action, a capacity sometimes called ‘agency'”(296).  If we just say it’s a “capacity” we have, that is supposed to explain everything, but in fact that is the very thing that is need of explaining!  As always, when we try to explain the human world in reductive materialist terms, we have to eventually include some “and then a miracle happens” step at some point. Most often, this is done with rhetorical sleight-of-hand; at least Searle spells it out openly.

Searle, like Young, is enamored of neuroscience, and sure that advances in neuroscience will solve all these mysteries.  Both adopt what seems to me an almost universal assumptions: neuroscience is a new science, and so we must wait for slow progress and the answer will come probably long after we are dead—it is just that complex.  Science, most people think, proceeds by slow and methodical building up of facts.  Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the history of science knows that’s never how it works.  It is always the other way around: first we solve the big problem, then comes the slow and methodical work of filling in the details.  First we grasp that the Sun is at the center of the solar system, then begins the difficult methodical work of exactly calculating the orbits of the planets.  This kind of bottom-up work toward the big answer is just waving a promissory note to avoid dealing with a conceptual failure.

And Searle’s project is Lockean, and neoliberal, in the overall goals as well as in the details.  He wants to explain that we can only “cope with the world”(192), and to rule out considerations of how we might change it.  In his book Making the Social World his insists that the most “fundamental set of basic facts are the atomic theory of matter and the evolutionary theory of biology,” and no explanation of anything social will be accepted unless is begins with and is “derived from the mental phenomena of individuals.” As with Locke, we must always assume that individual subjects precede social systems, which occur because these atomistic individuals interact in a way analogous to atoms and molecules interacting in matter.

There seems, in American analytical philosophy at least, no possibility of questioning these key Lockean assumptions, no matter how troublesome they prove.  The work of philosophy is to assume we must endlessly discuss consciousness and self, circling them again and again but never getting closer; this is a reactionary project, to keep these empty terms at work obscuring the ideological nature of our construal of the world.  If we questioned them, we might move out of the kind of fatalist neoliberal ideology that has enslaved us all to a pursuit of blissful sensations.  And we wouldn’t want that.  Someone might start suggesting we can enjoy taking action in the world, that the capacity to act is more important that the capacity to passively perceive…and consume.  And then where would capitalism be?

Avoiding Translation

It seems that all of x-buddhism, like analytical philosophy, is not much more than one more version of Lockean capitalist ideology.  What gets x-buddhists more worked up than the insistence that we can get outside of language?  Or claims that pure perception untainted by social meaning is the source of profound truth?  But for most of the history of Buddhism, the use of language in rigorous philosophical debate was considered the main route to enlightenment.  The whole history of Buddhist thought and practice, it seems, is just incompatible with modern capitalist ideologies of the subject—so it needs to be ditched or rewritten.  If we want the exotic flavor of ancient wisdom to give credence to a shaky ideology (and it seems we do) we need to be sure we don’t actually consider whether that ancient wisdom might not have been producing the capitalist ideological concepts we are so thoroughly indoctrinated in.  Then we wind up as enlightened brains, enjoying out brownies, and answering all questions at the level of “I use a pencil.”  The inability to think is the basic condition of “clarity” and “equanimity,” the brownie is a taste of enlightenment.

One way to ensure we stay firmly within (and blind to) our ideology is with translation.  X-buddhists will argue passionately about whether anatman is best translated as not-self, no-self or non-self, but they would never consider that the term atman might not have meant “self” at all, that Buddha might not have been thinking in these thoroughly modern, thoroughly capitalist, Lockean concepts.  The same goes for consciousness—a problematic term in translations of Buddhist texts, just as it is in Western philosophy.  But maybe vinnana didn’t mean the same thing as we mean by consciousness at all; perhaps there was a concept the term indicated, and it wasn’t just an empty placeholder meant to fill in the gap in the capitalist ideology of the subject?  When we translate these texts into terms central to our own ideology, we are doing nothing but reproducing our ideology and pretending its problems are the same ones all cultures have wrestled with.  Maybe the alternative is to avoid such unquestioned translations into unclear and ideologically loaded terms, and instead to work to figure how thinkers in a radically different culture might have construed the world.

To offer just one example from much closer to our world than the Pali canon or Nagarjuna, consider Spearing’s translation of the fourteenth-century English text on meditation, “The Cloud of Unknowing.”  Spearing translates from the original Middle English, and uses the term “consciousness.”  But he points out in a note that no such term, or concept, existed in the fourteenth century.  As he says, “no single modern term corresponds” to the original term, which was mynde.  The concept indicated by this term is not what we mean by mind, nor what we mean by consciousness, but something along the lines of a collection of “faculties of the soul,” including memory.  The use of the term consciousness, I would suggest, works to translate the entire contents of this texts into our contemporary ideological language.  But what if we just learn to read it in the original, without a translation?  Middle English isn’t all that alien, and we can even learn to think in its pre-capitalist concepts in a fairly short time.  Perhaps we can, by doing this, learn to think in concepts different from our own, and get some space from our conceptual imprisonment in the Lockean ideology of the subject.

We might try a similar thing with Buddhism. Young devotes a great deal of discussion to the terms consciousness and self, but he just assumes that they are things that exist in the world and the task is to find out what they “really” are.  The result is that he winds up in a morass of absurd new-age gibberish.  Worse, his followers pretend to follow this nonsense, and are convinced they are having pure and language-free perceptions.  And in the end, they become good neoliberal subject, so desperate to resign themselves to the inevitability of our social system that they are as eager as Young is for their enlightenment-lobotomies!

What if, instead, we made it our practice to question such obviously ideological concepts, and to explore concepts in Buddhist texts that don’t have any correspondence in our language? This would not free us from all ideology, but would produce a new ideological position from within which we might be able to question the dominant position.  This is not an attempt to get outside of language into pure perception, but an attempt to work completely within language, recognizing that there is nothing human outside of, or prior to, the social.  Typically, we try to take Buddhist texts and find some strategy to make them reproduce our preferred capitalist ideology—for instance, Stephen Batchelor’s “hermeneutic strategy” to translate the Pali canon into a replica of that great 20th-century capitalist ideologue, Richard Rorty.  This serves to retread an unconvincing ideology by pleasantly coating it with the seductive allure of ancient Eastern profundity.  What such acts of translation or interpretation always seem to miss is that they are pretending to be culturally neutral or free of ideology, while resting on completely culture-bound assumptions.  These assumptions are so foundational it is difficult to imagine that they are culturally constructed at all.  And the same thing happens in the field of analytical philosophy.  Searle adopts Locke’s floating signifiers with absolutely no awareness of when or why these vague concepts were invented. He repeatedly insists he wants to set aside the limiting concepts of tradition and “just try to state the facts” objectively. But what he can see as a fact is constructed by the Lockean assumptions he cannot begin to question. In analytically philosophy, the goal is always to steer clear of real-world application, but I would suggest that if Searle’s philosophy of mind were ever put into any kind of practice, that practice would look an awful lot like what Shinzen Young is teaching.  If we want to stop blindly reproducing these same empiricist problems, maybe we should stop translating, and start using the troubling impossibility of translation as a wedge to prize open our own ideological prison.

Now, I don’t consider myself an “enlightened” being, and I know that my concept of what it would mean to be enlightened is a particular and unusual one. I don’t want to argue that reductivist x-buddhists have no right to the word “enlightened” and can’t call the pursuit of thought-free pleasant bodily sensation enlightenment if they want.  I don’t really even much care what various schools of Buddhism meant by the term in the past–at least, I don’t care to decide on which such definition is the “right” one. (It might be a useful exercise to try to grasp the function of terms for enlightenment in different schools of Buddhism, though).

What I do want to suggest is, regardless of whether the reductivist x-buddhists are correct about what “classical enlightenment” might have been, we should think carefully about whether it is the kind of thing we want today.  It might work out fine to be a consuming atomistic self, so long as somebody’s supplying the brownies.  But look around folks, we’re running out of brownies.

Personally, I’d prefer to become the kind of subject capable of engaging with the world so as to transform it, able to see that meaning is socially constructed in language and social practices, and that we can collectively transform them.  So, how do we do this?

Well, to begin with, it would take someone a lot better than I am at making these kinds of problems clear to more people.  If any agency is necessarily collective, real work on changing the world can’t begin until enough people have come to see their way out of the constraints of these Lockean concepts of the world.

Of course, after such a clearing of the ground, we’d need to produce some ideological practice in which to begin to act.  Right now, we seem to have only ideological practices in which we adapt resignedly to ever increasing misery.  We can only decide between pencils and pens, but never write a different story.


Brownie, anyone?



Works Cited

Balibar, Etienne.  Identity and Difference: John Locke & the Invention of Consciousness.  Verso, 2013.

Feser, Edward.  Locke.  Oneworld Publications, 2007.

Hanson, Rick and Richard Mendius, M.D. Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom.  New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Harris, Sam.  Waking Up: A Guide to Spiritualty Without Religion.  Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Sandford, Stella.  “The Incomplete Locke: Balibar, Locke and the Philosophy of the Subject.”  In Identity and Difference by Etienne Balibar.  Verso, 2013.  pp. xl-xlvi.

Searle, John R.  Mind: a brief introduction.  Oxford University Press, 2004.

Spearing, A.C. Editor and Translator.  The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works.  Penguin, 2001.

Williams, Mark and Danny Penman.  Mindfulness: And Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  Rodale, 2012.

Young, Shinzen.  The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works.  Sounds True, 2016.

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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 »

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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 »

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Notes Towards a Coming Backlash

Posted by Glenn Wallis on March 4, 2016


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


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




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


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


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.



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.



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.

Heuman, Linda. 2014. Meditation Nation. Tricycle Blog, April 25

Hornborg, Anne-Christine. 2012. Coaching och lekmannaterapi: en modern väckelse? Stockholm: Dialogos.

Ingram, Daniel M. 2008. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. London: Aeon.

Iwamura, Jane Naomi. 2011. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religion and American Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 2003. The End of Temporality. Critical Inquiry. Vol. 29, No. 4.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 2005. Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion.

Lopez, Donald S. 2008. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lopez, Donald S. 2012. The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Loy, David. 1996. Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press.

Loy, David. 2002. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. Albany: SUNY Press.

Loy, David. 2003. The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Loy, David. 2008. Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Loy, David & Don Purser. 2013. Beyond McMindfulness.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1985. Depression, Buddhism, and the Work of Culture in Sri Lanka. In: Kleinman, Arthur & Byron Good (eds.) Culture and Depression. Studies in the Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Psychiatry of Affect and Disorder. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ohlsson, Anna. 2008. Myt och manipulation. Radikal psykiatrikritik i svensk offentlig idédebatt 1968—1973. Diss. Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis.

Paulsen, Roland. 2008. Via Negativa. En antiauktoritär läsning av Kaj Håkanson. I Wide, Sverre, Fredrik

Palm och Vessela Misheva(red.)Om kunskap, kärlek och ingenting särskiljt. En vänbok till Kaj Håkanson. Uppsala: Sociologiska institutionen, Uppsala universitet.

Pepper, W. Thomas. 2014. The Faithful Buddhist. E-book. Available here and here

Plank, Katarina. 2011. Insikt och närvaro: Akademiska kontemplationer kring buddhism, meditation och mindfulness. Diss. Göteborg: Makadam.

Plank, Katarina (ed.) 2014. Mindfulness. Tradition, tolkning och tillämpning. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Sharf, Robert H. 1993. The Zen of Japanese Nationalism. History of Religions 33, 1: 1–43. (Reprinted in Lopez, Donald S (ed.). Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

Sharf, Robert H. 1995a. Sanbōkyōdan. Zen and the Way of the New Religions. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22.(3–4): 417–458.

Sharf, Robert H. 1995b. Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience. Numen 42: 228–283.

Sharf, Robert H. 2014. Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Early Chan. Philosophy East & West, 64(4): 933–964.

Sharf, Robert H. 2015 Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and why it matters). Transcultural Psychiatry Vol. 52(4) 470–484.

Victoria, Brian (Daizen). 1997. Japanese Corporate Zen. In Joe Moore (ed.) The other Japan : conflict, compromise, and resistance since 1945. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe.
Bulletin of concerned Asian scholars.

Victoria, Brian (Daizen). 2006. Zen at War. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wallis, Glenn. 2002. Mediating the Power of Buddhas: Ritual in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wallis, Glenn. 2004. Basic Teachings of the Buddha.New York: Modern Library.

Wallis, Glenn. 2007. The Dhammapada. Verses on the Way. New York: Modern Library.

Wallis, Glenn. 2012. Elixir of Mindfulness. non+x. Issue 2.

Wallis, Glenn, Tom Pepper & Matthias Steingass. 2013. Cruel Theory | Sublime Practice: Toward a Revaluation of Buddhism. Roskilde: Eyecorner Press.

Webster, David. 2012. Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. Winchester: Zer0 Books.

Wilson, Jeff. 2014. Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zaretsky, Eli. 2013. Psykoanalysen och kapitalismens anda. Fronesis 44-45: 53–79.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001. On Belief. London: Routledge.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2001b From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism. Cabinet Magazine. Issue 2.


*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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An Attempt at Something Novelistic

Posted by Glenn Wallis on February 6, 2016

In a new post at Lines of FlightFeatured Image -- 2835, Tom Pepper shares a creative work “that tries to engage the world critically, and to encourage its readers to do so.” It should be clear to most readers of this blog that such an attempt resonates in several regards to the non-buddhism project. Just recall certain ideas that have circulated here: discourses with consequences; the event; the faithful subject; radical immanence; thinking from the One; the stranger subject; the site of struggle; the void of exclusion. See for yourself. And please offer Tom your feedback.

From the opening of the novel:
The Event: Gabe 1
Thursday’s I would meet Sam at the Golden Monkey and we would drink tea and talk about her delusions. No, not that kind of delusions, not the psychotic kind. I mean it in the Buddhist way. Sam had almost no delusions left, which is a scary way to be; much worse than having lots of them; almost as bad as having none at all. I’ll start with that last Thursday meeting, the one that led to all the trouble.

[With Pepper and tea-drinking, you know there’s trouble ahead!
And toward the end:]

You will assume that anyone calling himself a Buddhist is just a kind of new-age dim-bulb at best, a crazy nihilist at worst, and of little interest to you. Most of the time, you’d be right. But I hope you’ll read on…I hope you’ll have fun reading on. I hope you’ll have more fun in life for having read on.

Lines of Flight

Things have slowed down a bit here.  Only three or four visits a day, almost no comments.  So what better time to attempt a somewhat more self-indulgent post?

I’m posting the first section of a draft of a novel I’m working on.  Or, have just about finished and am trying to revise. Or something.  I had asked if anyone wanted to critique my creative work in the way I try to interrogate that of others, but there were no eager volunteers.  Maybe reading it first will raise some questions?

My hope is to offer an example of something that just might do what I have repeatedly asked for examples of. That is, a kind of creative work that tries to engage the world critically, and to encourage its readers to do so.  I have doubts that this is possible. Even more doubts that this particular example can succeed.  But any…

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Tutteji is Back and the Future Looks Bright

Posted by Glenn Wallis on January 31, 2016

TuttejiIs there hope after all? If you are as excited as I am about Tutteji’s re-emergence from his dark night of transintegral metemschizoidseelewanderung in the cosmic markets (or wherever the hell he’s been), then please remember to donate to the Tutteji Gratitude Fund. I hope you’ll all join me in a hearty long live the Wachmeister, master of brainwaves and market fluctuations! God and Ken Wilber know we need him!


Over the past couple of years there has been a tremendous outpouring of compassion, concern and curiosity from the Transintegral™ community regarding its founder and main teacher, Tutteji Wachtmeister. As we all know, Tutteji entered a solitary, personal retreat in early 2014, and for the past couple of years the beloved guide, considered by many as “the smartest guru alive” and “the thinking man’s Ken Wilber”, has not given any public teachings.

Until now.

We are incredibly excited to announce that Tutteji Dai Osho is back and has resumed leadership of the Transintegral Zen™ Sangha and the entire Transintegral community. At his side is an extremely talented, vibrant community of newly transmitted Dharma teachers and we can expect a virtual avalanche of updated, fun and profitable teachings right from the frothy frontlines of cutting-edge spiritual evolution.

trixie During a private sesshin in Las Vegas, I decided to give Dharma transmission to…

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Book Review: Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind

Posted by Glenn Wallis on January 18, 2016

Book cover 1By Matthew Joseph O’Connell

Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist teachers and a new perspective on the mind. By Richard P. Boyle. Columbia University Press, 2015.

In Realizing Awakened Consciousness (RAC), Richard P. Boyle, a retired sociology professor involved with western Buddhism for several decades, interviews 11 western Buddhist teachers and attempts to develop a theory of awakening with a straightforward model for understanding its core characteristics that leaves Buddhist terminology behind. Divided into 17 chapters with the first 11 dedicated to individual interviews with teachers, Boyle draws on his own sociology background and the work of a range of popular academics. The second section, by far the more interesting, develops a theoretical model of awakening, heavily informed by sociological theory, a first as far as I am aware, along with insight and theoretical support from a number of prominent academics including; the neurologist Antonio Damasio, psychologists Alison Gopnik and Daniel Kahneman, the linguist Derek Bickerton, and sociologists Peter Burger, Thomas Luckmann and Anthony Giddens. The book ends with Boyle making suggestions for further research and an acknowledgement of the limitations of his model. What makes Boyle’s work stand out from the usual x-Buddhist fare is his understanding and elaboration of social reality and the social self, which moves discussion away from an overtly individualised model of the self and the usual droll discourse of the ego as the source of all evil. In this regard, there is a potential link to the work of Mr Tom Pepper at Speculative Non-Buddhism (SNB) and his own site The Faithful Buddhist, whose ongoing and laboured critique of ideology and ideological blindness amongst Buddhists (and pretty much everybody else) has proven so enlightening. Secondly, Boyle eschews a model of awakening based on the superman and constructs his model in alignment with theories proposed by the academics above. Will it be yet another celebration of the sufficiency of Buddhism? Will it talk of the ineffable, perfect goal of perfect awakening? Let’s find out. Read the rest of this entry »

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Book and podcast reviews?

Posted by Glenn Wallis on October 31, 2015

HalloweenIs anyone interested in writing book reviews for this site? The new publications below have come to my attention recently. Maybe you have other suggestions? If you are interested, either email me at gw@glennwallis.com or leave a comment in the usual spot. Here are the books and podcast I have in mind, including their press descriptions and my two cents (links are at the very end):

  • Marcus Boon, Eric Cazdyn, and Timothy Morton, Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2105).

Though contemporary European philosophy and critical theory have long had a robust engagement with Christianity, there has been no similar engagement with Buddhism—a surprising lack, given Buddhism’s global reach and obvious affinities with much of Continental philosophy. This volume fills that gap, focusing on “nothing”—essential to Buddhism, of course, but also a key concept in critical theory from Hegel and Marx through deconstruction, queer theory, and contemporary speculative philosophy. Through an elaboration of emptiness in both critical and Buddhist traditions; an examination of the problem of praxis in Buddhism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis; and an explication of a “Buddhaphobia” that is rooted in modern anxieties about nothingness, Nothing opens up new spaces in which the radical cores of Buddhism and critical theory are renewed and revealed.

This book includes some discussion of the speculative non-buddhism project, both favorably and critically. In bringing “contemporary European philosophy and critical theory” into the discussion, it also attempts something like a feast of knowledge. One interesting point of difference between Boon, et al. and what they term “Wallis et al.” is that the term Buddhaphobia appears in contrast to our (or maybe just my) very early term buddhaphilia. The former is Timothy Morton’s invention. It “overlap[s] with those [coordinates] of homophobia: a fear of intimacy, a fear of ambiguity, a fear of inwardness and introversion, a fear of theory rather than praxis” (187). The latter refers to westerners celebratory Romantic embrace of all things buddhist, particularly of those very “coordinates” that Morton sees as pointing to Buddhaphobia! Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Critics, Speculative Non-Buddhist | Tagged: , | 23 Comments »

Lines of Flight 2

Posted by Glenn Wallis on September 18, 2015

mod-st8Just a quick message to let subscribers know that Tom Pepper and I are going to relaunch Lines of Flight. Readers of Speculative Non-Buddhism will recognize many of the themes there, although they are in wrapped in quite different garb.

Stay tuned for a fuller description at the blog. In the meantime, maybe you’ll want to check out the new piece with Curt Dilger.

–Glenn Wallis


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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