Speculative Non-Buddhism

ruins of the buddhist real

Buddhists of Oz?

Posted by Glenn Wallis on May 19, 2011

Do Buddhist teachers in North America affect thaumaturgy? If so–and, bear with me; this is not meant as a nasty question–how would they compare to the Wizard of Oz? With the aid of high sensory pageantry and other catalyzing paraphernalia, the Wizard of Oz affected wonder-working powers. Do North American Buddhist teachers do so as well? (See links to movie clips at the very end of this post.)

Recent research in cognitive science, suggests that they do. The evidence suggests, however, that they do so in subtle, barely discernible, ways. In the article that I present for you here, “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion,” Justin Barrett presents evidence that “the cultural phenomenon typically labeled as ‘religion,’ may be understood as the product of aggregated ordinary cognition.” Barrett asks, for example, whether God concepts are really all that different from guerrilla concepts, or whether performing a religious ritual is fundamentally different from sending a greeting card to a friend. Data from cognitive science answers “no” to these questions. I hope you will use Barrett’s article to give thought to various aspects of Buddhist practice, including devotional rituals, the treatment of artifacts, and the efficacy ascribed to meditation practice. Here, I would like to give some thought to how the findings in cognitive science bear on our understanding of the teacher. My question, again, is: Do Buddhist teachers in North America affect thaumaturgy?

Before I present some suggestive evidence in this court of inquiry, I want to frame the issue within my project of Speculative non-Buddhism. First, a reminder that the pervasive concern of my entire project is encapsulated in this question: to what extent can knowledge be incorporated into “Buddhism”? Knowledge is whatever contributes to perspicacity concerning our human situation. In the present case, we are considering knowledge given us by cognitive science. Knowledge is not doctrine, not faith, not belief, not the claims of your teacher. Is “Buddhism” a form of knowledge?  On the face of it, “Buddhism” names nothing in life. At least, I am suggesting, we cannot know what in life it does name until we find ourselves involuntarily, spontaneously performing the following: devitalizing Buddhism’s voltaic network of postulation; canceling its warrant to truth and certainty; and, finally, vacating its protective refuge. Only once “Buddhism” lies prostrate and deflated (hence “non-Buddhism”) can we begin to give calm thought to its charge.

And what now becomes clear? It becomes clear that Buddhist teachers are a sub-type of specialist. Whether they present themselves as religious specialists, spiritual specialists, ritual specialists, specialists in life wisdom, meditation specialists, or specialists in being “ordinary,” they are creating an aura of expectation for something special. But are they affecting thaumaturgy? Pascal Boyer offers the following powerful prism through which to speculate on this question. Boyer writes:

 “Notions of ritual specialists are based on non-religious notions of causal essence. People think of such ritual specialists as having some internal, vaguely defined quality that sets them apart from the common folk. Learning to perform the rites [is secondary]; what matters most is possession of that internal capacity, conceived in quasi-biological terms. This is where, once again, what may have seemed a specifically religious phenomenon is derived from common cognition. The notion of a hidden causal essence that cannot be observed yet explains outward form and behavior, is a crucial feature of our spontaneous, intuitive way of thinking about living species. Here, it is transferred upon a pseudo-natural kind, as it were: a sub-kind of human agents with different essential characteristics.” (Pascal Boyer, “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution,” p. 33; in, Religion as Human Capacity [Leiden: Brill, 2004].)

The notion of “enlightenment,” is a prime example of “hidden causal essence.” Why does the Dalai Lama act the way he does? Because he is, of course, an “enlightened” being. His actions are impelled by this  “essence,” hence it is “causal.” The essence, moreover, is invisible to us; hence, it is “hidden.” Being hidden, how are we affected by it? Below, I offer some telling signs that spark our imputation of special qualities onto a person. An all-too-common result of this imputation of hidden causal essence is that we easily—indeed, spontaneously and “naturally”— elevate certain humans to an exclusive status. Cognitive science aims to show that such a move results from the habits of everyday cognition. We assume that entities, whether human, animal, or even imagined (such as “God”), possess qualities that are intrinsic and, indeed, essential to that kind of entity. The question here is to what extent Buddhist teachers in North America excite and encourage assumptions of their special, hidden, causal essence (as enlightened, wise, possessing special curative powers–of, in short, having the answer.) Given the fact that teachers here do all of this and more, I think we need to consider that they do indeed affect thaumaturgy. A question that should follow on this one is to what extent, and in what specific ways, that stance is salutary or harmful to their students.

Telling signs of thaumaturgical display among North American Buddhist teachers include: masking identity with special naming, clothing, and hair styles; exalted utterance, verbal demiurgy; narratological seizure; assumption of privileged status as ritual officiate; wielding unique power objects; functioning as high pageantry eminence; serving as guardians of the axis mundi. As my readers know, we could add much more. (Please do so in the comments section!)

In a matter such as this, it may not be imprudent to cast the issue in more personal terms. May we ask the following questions as illustrations of the issue: Why does Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche dress up like a medieval Tibetan princeling? Surely he understands that he is living in a twenty-first century western democracy. Why does Lama Surya Das—a man who preaches “the natural, primordially pure nature of mind”—go by that Tibetan/Hindu hybrid name, rather than his given name, Jeffrey Miller? Why does Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara dress up in the glorified garb of a medieval Japanese farmer? Why does Sharon Salzberg present herself as “an intensive meditator since 1971” (and why the ever-present smile)? I do not mean for these questions to be cruel. I am genuinely curious about the answers. And I don’t mean the easy answers about, for example, the upholding of tradition, the value of received forms, the rhetoric of “this is just how we do things.” I am curious about a more reflective answer. Would the students of these teachers be disappointed if the teachers appeared in everyday clothing, everyday hairstyles, using their given names, speaking everyday English? What do the teachers fear would be lost in the foregoing of traditional forms? Is it possible that something of even greater value may be gained? Is it not ironic that Buddhist teachers, who, ostensibly, espouse  values such as  ego reduction, commonality with others, freedom, and simplicity, burden their students with new, albeit Buddhist, forms of neurotic attachment? Teachers: why don’t you step out from behind your curtain?

In other words:

Pay no attention to the person behind the curtain

What you’re seeking already lies within you

Here is Justin Barrett’s article: “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” It first appeared in Trends in Cognitive Science, volume 4, number one, January 2000.

Justin Barrett is a professor in the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. Here is his webpage.


11 Responses to “Buddhists of Oz?”

  1. Brad said

    Recently a member of my meditation group led an introductory class on meditation offered by our sangha. She took great pains to emphasize that she is “NOT a teacher of the the dhamma.” I found this expression rather strange and perplexing. If she wasn’t “teaching the dhamma” just what was she doing? I can understand not presenting oneself as a teacher if one does not feel qualified to do so but she was simply delivering basic information and answering questions as skillfully as any “Professional Buddhist Teacher” I’ve seen. She doesn’t make a living off teaching but, in my opinion, that is functionally what she was doing in the class.

    It seems as if she believed there is some special mystical understanding — the True Dhamma — which is qualitatively different from the mundane dhamma she was presenting in the class. The dhamma is all too often understood not as a practical way of living or efficacious way of relating to your experience, but as some sort of otherworldly gnosis. And we all know who has the this gnosis and who doesn’t. They’re the ones with the titles, robes, books published, meditation resorts founded, etc…

  2. Glenn Wallis said

    Hi Brad. Thanks for your comment. I think it perfectly exemplifies Pascal Boyer’s idea of hidden causal essence. I suppose the teacher to whom you refer was really making a statement about her lack of such special hidden qualities. An implicit assumption in her comment was that others do in fact possess such hidden qualities – and we know what those qualities are: enlightenment, wisdom, special insight, and so on. Somehow, she has acquired the idea that such hidden forces are the prime movers in “genuine” teachers of “the Dharma.” I would not want to say that there is no such thing as expertise, or that we are all on equal footing when it comes to ability and skill and experience. I am interested in exploring where the lines are, what the distinctions are, who makes them, and what good or harm they do. And using some of the frameworks offered to us by cognitive science we can also start exploring how, in fact, such people as the reluctant teacher you mentioned even acquire such ideas. We may, furthermore, begin to gain some insight into how such ideas, once acquired, are stored and transmitted by tradition. Again, in terms of my project on this blog, such a speculative endeavor would serve to mute Buddhism’s vibrato, thereby giving us a possibility to hear new resonances. Thanks again.

  3. frank jude said

    Interesting to read this post right after reading a chapter on the “Teacher-Student Relationship” in The Wisdom of Imperfection by Bob Preece. He speaks about “transference” within the relationship of teacher and student as the “projection of an inner quality or attribute” onto the teacher by the student. He writes, “The effect of this positive aspect of the transferred archetypal quality onto a teacher is a profound opening to multiple levels of insight and experience. The skillful teacher gradually enables the disciple to recognize this process and helps to awaken the inner experience…. As this happens, the disciple can draw back some of the projection and become more autonomous and individual…”

    Of course, he then goes on to warn of the “hazards of transference” when a teacher is not “entirely impeccable in how he or she carried the projection of the guru.”

    I think there’s little way to prevent transference in any teaching relationship. Students are often all too willing and eager to project onto their teachers. One question is if there is truly any skillful way to use it as Preece seems to think, or if the most skillful response from a teacher is to somehow undermine such projection? I’m curious how this plays out in your thinking?

    One of the most pernicious examples of this “hidden causal essence” is found in the Zen tradition of “dharma transmission” (often called “mind-to-mind transmission” like it’s some kind of Vulcan Mind Meld — or whatever it’s called in Star Trek!).

    As per Brad’s observation; I’ve seen/heard similar things from students of other teachers. I think Brad’s point, echoing yours is spot on, yet I’ve also sometimes wondered if there’s also an element of ‘false’ modesty/humility at play? A bit of ‘over-protestation?’ But that’s another topic, isn’t it?

    Thanks again for your blog!

  4. Earl Rectanus said

    I do like bringing this back to the scientifically oriented foundations of the problem, so the neuroscience or even simple, less sexy, social science foundations. So as primates we define and organize groups, and as homo sapiens we do this in a rigidly hierarchical fashion which is defined by power relationships which are enforced through reinforcement and punishment. So alpha males are generally good at reinforcing and punishing those lower than them in a human group. As we are having a more insightful social engagement with our innate programming we are now having alpha females, and even having less hierarchically rigid organizational systems. The new Dharma teacher above was indicating that she did not have the confidence to either reinforce or punish members of her group, and she was also implicitly asking to not be punished by them for presuming to take the archetypal mantle of leadership. In religious circles, it seems that as the objective foundations for the mantle of authority are often very weak, by cognitive dissonance, the importance of the “authority” of the dominant individual needs to be given a higher order of ritual respect. By comparison, in my doctoral training, we were quite free to aggressively question our authorities, who had better be able to support their perspectives through the relevant literatures (or we would just take up with one of the other faculty, whose perspective and position we found more resonant). Also interestingly, the grad students, in private (and realizing that this was a hierarchically driven simian setting) were quite free to disparage the authority figures for their many peccadilloes and did not tend to put them on pedestals of any sort. Their objective grasp of their material and its demonstrable effectiveness in the world was sufficiently obvious (by this analysis) that a ritual transference of hidden and special abilities was not called for.

  5. andy said

    I find your writing rather thaumaturgical, itself:

    “At least, I am suggesting, we cannot know what in life it does name until we find ourselves involuntarily, spontaneously performing the following: devitalizing Buddhism’s voltaic network of postulation; canceling its warrant to truth and certainty; and, finally, vacating its protective refuge. Only once “Buddhism” lies prostrate and deflated (hence “non-Buddhism”) can we begin to give calm thought to its charge.”

    that’s at least as over-dressed as the Sakyong!

  6. Glenn Wallis said

    Hi Andy, thank you for your comment. Someone has commented on my style. Finally! I have made a conscious decision to write in the manner that I do – overdressed, as you say, charged, over the top, fancy-schmancy, rollicking, trundling, whorling, roaring. I have my tongue in my cheek, but there is a bit of cayenne simmering there on the tip, just in case. Basil and lemon grass flavor my words as well.

    One reason for my decision to write in the way that I do on this blog is that I find Buddhist writing shockingly jejune. If I had to guess, I would say that the glossy magazines and trade books that are consumed by so many western Buddhists are written at about a sixth to eighth grade level. The vocabulary of Buddhist writing is brain-numbingly cramped. Style and creativity seem to count for nothing. Scholarly writing is mechanical and uninspired. I could go on. But the point is that much of what I’m doing at this blog is creating a contrast to what I see as the Buddhist status quo. Creating a contrast sometimes means exaggerating in one direction in order to show that things have become stuck in the other direction. Also, another point of this blog is that once we stack Buddhism up against other cultural forms, say, poetry, literature, and philosophy, Buddhism starts to look pretty scrawny in many respects. Why do Buddhists never asked the question: why does our writing suck? And, then a further question: what does lame-ass writing say about our tradition, and about those of us who countenance–not to mention scarf down–such writing?

    That is style. As I’m sure you know, elevated speech is an important aspect of thaumaturgical language. Content matters, too, though. I have to give the issue you raise some more thought – and I will do so. But my quick answer is that, content-wise, my writing on this blog is at best anti-thaumaturgical. That is not to say that it lacks a thaumaturgical thrust,or that it does not partake in thaumaturgy. It does. But it does so in the sense that atheism is somehow still in conversation with theism, or that anarchy has in its sights the archon. If there is any wonder-working going on here, it has to do with “powers” (a thaumaturgical conceit itself) of reasoning, careful investigation, cool analysis, and so on.

    But I don’t think this answer settles the matter. You raised a very good question. I will give it more thought. Thank you very much, Andy.

  7. andy said

    lovely reply, and an interesting question, method vs. content, I guess: if your thaumaturgy can be in support of reasoning, etc., then a critique of a thaumaturgical method alone does not challenge (or cannot be grounds for condemning) the reasonableness of the content therein. I agree with you about most Buddhist writing, and for me it points to the importance of spoken, in-the-flesh transmission. My teacher, who has no special name or garb, certainly uses verbal thaumaturgy, and, well, that shit just works. The “ordinary mind” or what have you is so obscured by our conventional conditioning and experience that thaumaturgical speech is the only way that words can begin to approximate the experience of it found in practice. I’ll accept fancy-shmancy means if they convey the right content, especially if other means fail to do so.

  8. Jamie said

    You can take your hat off in church but it doesn’t make you a gentleman…. (or my other crude favorite “well pin a rose on your fucking nose”.) I always thought a healthy distrust of authority was a tenant of Buddhism. So imagine my shock when a fellow Buddhist told me that I shouldn’t read Koans because I could never understand their proper answer without validation from a “master/teacher”. That “traditionally”… ech, I just puked a little in my mouth, a teacher assigns a koan once the student’s power level (he probably used a different word) has been assessed. I guess I’m too dumb to understand Koans without help from a teacher. I wanted to tell him that I don’t even meditate because I’m such a sinner, but I didn’t want to send him into a seizure.

  9. marajit said

    So exactly how does one dress in a twenty-first century western democracy?
    I find the top I see Afghani’s wearing – the one that goes to the knees – more humble and comely than these shirts that end in my pants. Isn’t this what democratic citizens are so afraid of – not having a choice? Who says chinos and shirt is more comfortable?

    Is a secular society truly indifferent or does it complain and censure the embodiment of religious vestige? Remember the French controversy over Muslim headgear.

    Jamie: The inconceivable is not a topic for thought – Sapan

  10. Dosho said


    There’s no escape. One teacher wears blue jeans and poses on his Harley. Don’t think that’s any less magical than wearing the garb of by-gone generations.

    Teachers are nothing special despite how some may act and what gets projected. Stepping out from behind the curtain is an ongoing project as we’re all such fakes. Maybe you too.

    Too much focus on the teacher might distract us from our own liberation project.


  11. comoane said

    We are almost all still children who, having lost the feeling of magic in our lives, suffer from the pain of longing for it. The idea that getting that magic back will save us makes us willing to either work hard to fit in, numb ourselves with addictive substances our look for it in “ancient wisdom” and/or the rituals of a religion. The lather nowadays seems to be preferably a path with rituals and teachings or teachers from a culture we did not grow up in since these are more easily holding the promise of being different and not burdened with disappointment. They are not “de-masked” yet. But of course here too very rarely a teacher or teaching is indeed pointing us into a direction that will lead to true “growing up”. Thaumaturge asks for “believe”. Not for a critical mind that is able to discern and definitely not for questioning ones own motives to “believe”. It asks for an almost blind surrender to be able to fully step into the consensus that makes it possible. This consensus more often than not creates a fertile ground for so many, many opportunities of the abuse of power that it is heartbreaking. Literally.

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