Raw Remarks on Meditation, Ideology and Nihilism
Posted by Glenn Wallis on July 12, 2011
[I will be high in the Alps (high up, that is) and largely internet-free, until early August. I would like to leave you with a few stray, suggestive, unprocessed, and probably irresponsible remarks about meditation practice. These remarks stem from a chapter of a book that I am working on. Although I won’t be able to respond now to your comments, I hope you will nonetheless “talk amongst yourselves.”]
As I was about to post my raw remarks on meditation, a comment by Tom Pepper arrived on the “What is non-Buddhism” page. I encourage you to read his comment. Tom’s questions, insights, suggestions, and general attitude exemplify the kind of thinking needed for the work that I am hoping to stoke, or indeed incite, on this blog. After reading his comment, I went back and selected different raw fragments, ones that might better speak to his remarks.
Tom’s approach effectively suspends Buddhism’s system of postulation, challenges its axiomatic regency, and cancels its warrant of truth by opening Buddhism to the influx of foreign ideas. For instance, he says to Buddhism, “let me introduce you to Louis Althusser;” and, “please meet the acquaintance of literary theory.” I contend that Buddhism’s mien is altered—perhaps radically and unrecognizably—in the company of the wider community of thought and practice. This altered mien invites, indeed requires, a “re-reading” of Buddhism, one that, moreover, stimulates a re-visioning of Buddhism’s possibilities.
Tom writes, for instance:
Philosophy can either be an ideological practice, or it can be a critique of, a science of, ideological practices. I think Buddhism, because it requires a kind of practice itself, may be able to transcend that division. More like critical realism’s theory of transformational model of social activity, we can do science and ideology at the same time. Personally, I would like to see Buddhism function as a practice in which we can gain critical distance from, and knowledge of, our ideological practices, and attempt to produce better more effective ones.
Speculative Non-Buddhism sees “Buddhism” as a descriptor of precisely an ideological practice. Buddhism is nothing if not a vortex of participation and identity. It aims, both explicitly and implicitly, to form particular types of subjects in its own image, and to do so on the basis of prescribed practices (social, linguistic; devotional, contemplative, etc.) accompanied by robust institutional commitment. The fact that we must perform the kinds of methodological moves that Speculative Non-Buddhism makes (e.g., disruption, devitalization of charism, curvature, disinterest) further suggests the ideological nature of Buddhism; for Buddhism’s self-evaluation insists on an epistemological break with subsequent, and merely other, forms of knowledge (see the post on Metzinger and Jayarava).
Speculative Non-Buddhism is deeply curious about the role that meditation practice might play in transcending the division between ideology and self-reflective critique. The raw remarks that I present below stem from a re-reading, and hence a re-commissioning, of primary classical Buddhist postulates; namely, disenchantment, ancestral anamnesis, vanishing, phenomenal identity, nihility, conceptual proliferation, contingency, world, surface, perspicuity, unbinding-extinction (my translations of, respectively: nibbida, sati, anicca, anattā, suññtā, papañca, paticcasamuppāda, loka, sabba, paññā, nibbāna/nirvāṇa). My, still speculative, contention is three-fold: (1) these postulates can be (re-)read to constitute the Buddha’s calculus, understood here, briefly, as the qualification of real-world limits; (2) the calculus, thus re-commissioned, subsumes nihilism, and (3) meditation is, for the practitioner, precisely an organon of nihilistic dissolution.
Ray Brassier says of Laruelle’s non-philosophy project: “Non-philosophy is a theoretical practice of philosophy proceeding by way of transcendental axioms and producing theorems which are philosophically uninterpretable.”
Fit to my purposes, that statement reads: Non-Buddhism is a theoretical practice proceeding by way of classical Buddhist axioms yet producing theorems which are buddhistically uninterpretable.
Now, some raw, disjointed remarks on meditation. (For now, I assume as “meditation,” the contemplative-analytic practice prescribed in the Anapanasati Sutta of the Pali canon. If that’s too much for you, understand: sitting still and silently, attending viscerally to the breathing body/the sensorial field. “The protagonist” = Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha, whom I view as a literary figure, like Plato’s “Socrates.” Both men were historical figures overwritten by their literary idealizations.)
1. Meditation places you at the threshold to analytic ruin. You may temporarily stave off the inevitable with any number of fantastic conceptual constructions. In this case, you turn back. Another possibility: You engage the analysis, but only to palliative ends, and fall short of ruin. Still another possibility: You choose not to flinch from a central fact. This fact is inexorable and inevitable. It is rendered doubtful only by virtue of the darkest human ignorance or through an act of a gargantuan will to denial. If the history of the world is any indication, this fact is portentously hideous. If the history of our cultural institutions, of our language, of our very biology is any indication, no greater menace faces humanity. The fact: dissolution. Not flinching before the presence of dissolution, you cross the threshold and don’t turn back.
2. Dissolution is self-evident. It obtains immediately in every instance of perception, conception, and sensation. Over greater spans of time, such as a lifetime, it is made evident through memory and comparison. Science traces it over eons, before the advent of human beings. Dissolution is instantaneous and continuous. It is to extinction what a molecule is to mass, argon to vapor. Extinction describes more than the absolute cessation of objects and entities: it describes the condition that negates even the possibility of their being further extinguished. Extinction is patient: it waits for the final instance. Its purview is immense and vast. It sees its object after millions of years. Dissolution occurs in the midst of things—in the salience of their rising, persisting, and fading away. Its view is minute and narrow. It sees its object in an instant of intimate if destructive embrace. Yet, being instantaneous and continuous, dissolution is not extinguished. Although a concept itself, dissolution is one that hovers near the fact it names, rendering it intelligible. Dissolution as concept lends lucidity to what, without it, remains a dark, foreign, and harrowing domain. The concept dissolution makes possible the thinking of the fact of dissolution. Yet, thinking is mere thinking. The facts of human being seem to necessitate no constraint to human thinking. Thinking is often contentedly at odds with being. Intelligibility and lucidity, by contrast, though characteristics of thinking, suggest thought wading into the surging sea of immanence.
7. Meditation is an organon of dissolution. Unlike the flights of fancy enabled by discursive thinking, meditation entails relentless immanence. It is rooted in sensorial embodiment. Even thinking appears, in meditation, as physicality—as immanent fact itself. Meditation is a laying bare. It is to consciousness what skin is to the body, namely, organic interface, exposure to, and coalescence with environment. Both, skin and meditation, are organs; they are tools, means, of knowing, hence organon. Meditation is the laying bare of body to body in and of itself, of sensation to sensation in and of itself, of thought to thought in and of itself, of each to the other, of each to the whole, and of the whole to environment. As organon, meditation, like skin, is rooted in the surface of things.
14. The jaunt I invite you on is for curious explorers with light loads. An explorer, you may have already observed: A fortunate event has occurred in the history of human thought. The invigorating river of nihilism has bubbled forth once again from the dank underground. Look! Oh, how it glistens as it rolls like the steed of Khaos through our fallow earthly fields! Nietzsche has served resolutely as an unsurpassed guide to this jolting vista. There he stands—how courageous, how lonely—before the scene, and declares: “I praise, I do not reproach, its arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether we recover from it, whether we become master of this crisis, is a question of our strength—It is possible.” Indeed, Herr Nietzsche, it is possible; but that sentiment of yours presupposes another; namely, that we recognize the crisis. Do we, in fact? Do we really self-reflect, as you suggest? To which our guide responds, like the Athenian bumble bee, with a question of his own: “Is it not the case that all human institutions are intended to prevent us from feeling our lives, by means of the constant dispersion of our thoughts?” Indeed! Hence, the steed romps invisibly before our flitting eyes. It surrounds us, saturates us—like radiation. And yet, we are impervious to its presence. We are masters of denial, virtuosos of diversion. Nietzsche, of course, did not conjure up this gushing river of nihilism; he was merely the rare person who sees and then admits that it has burst forth from the underbelly of society and now lies exposed on the surface before all with eyes—and courage—to see. He saw it, even if his fellow humans did, and still do, not. Eventually, though, our guide, dear, lonely Nietzsche, retreats into his stone sanctuary of Eternal Return, stretches his legs, and is seen no more.
15. Fortunately, a fresh guide has arrived at the crest of our roaring vista: Ray Brassier. Listen well, and consider: “Nihilism is not…a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary, the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable.” (All Brassier quotes from Nihil Unbound.) A common trope in the modern commentaries of the protagonist’s teachings is that he denied a “mind-independent reality.” I myself have stated it thus elsewhere. So, a clarification is in order. The clarification involves an equivocation of terms. The protagonist does not posit the nonsensicality of a mind-independent reality—a material world that proceeds and will eventually post-date human existence. Rather, he renders such a material world irrelevant. Irrelevant to what? To his project of unbinding from the human pathologies that ensue from self-centered delusion. One such species-wide self-centered delusion is, of course, the notion that we humans are a necessary, even eternal, fixture of the world. The “mind-independent reality” that Brassier refers to names the world that geologists, paleontologists, and astronomers know from their data. In scope and nature, humans are, in that view, mere specks in space, blips in time, inconsequential to the colossal whole. The protagonist’s purview is much more limited. It is miniscule in comparison. He says, “What happened before your advent here, and what, if anything, follows your demise, is piffle to me. My concern is what to do in the ever-vanishing time being.” So, the protagonist begins his description of human subjectivity with the givenness of mind-independent reality, aka. the physical world, pointing out simply that “there is form” (rūpa). For the protagonist, form is constituted, as ancient physics usually has it, from earth (solidity), wind (distention), water (cohesion), and fire (heat). “Consciousness” is not a separate entity; it is a transparency that arises and vanishes with form. From “there is form,” the protagonist proceeds to map the unfurling of perception. One significant feature of perception, he teaches us, is that it frolics in form. Perception, from our vantage point, precedes reality because it fashions the only mode of reality that interests the protagonist: perceptual reality. Perception does so in the sense that a dolphin—via its very actions, the flap of its fluke, the snort of its anterior trachea—forms the primordial waters in which it immediately plays. Did the ocean exist before the appearance of that frolicking dolphin? Will the ocean exist after the last of the great Delphinidae have vanished? Interested as the protagonist is in our conceptual “worlding” (papañca)—akin to the dolphin’s frolic—this question is irrelevant to his project. Not irrelevant, though, are the narcissism and the draping of our presumptions: the narcissism of our presumption of being cosmically significant selves, and the excusable yet consequential presumption of our draping the world in meaning, value, purpose—in, that is, significance of all sorts. “Nature,” our new guide continues, “is not anyone’s ‘home’ … Philosophy [and let us add: Buddhism, religion, spirituality, yoga, meditation, etc.] would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. It should strive to be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity.” The degree and extent to which it is indeed an opportunity is precisely the meditator’s task to determine. Engaging the task, however, presupposes the relinquishment of bequeathed meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose turn out to be but further iterations of thinking; and what clear-eyed meditator has not discerned that “Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living; indeed, they can and have been pitted against the latter”? Finally, to those of you who reflexively respond, “even if it’s true, we must shore up against this impendence; we must insist on new meanings; at all costs, we must say yes!” consider this: “Senselessness and purposelessness are not merely private; they represent a gain in intelligibility. The cancellation of sense, purpose, and possibility marks the point at which the ‘horror’ concomitant with the impossibility of either being or not-being becomes intelligible.” Can that be?
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