Sick Progeny? Buddhism and Psychotherapy

Wherever Buddhism goes, it absorbs the values, assumptions, and ideologies of local cultures.We speak of Tibetan Buddhism, Late-Ming Buddhism or Western Buddhism. Doing so is a way of inscribing specific cultural modifications into the, ostensibly, stable descriptor “Buddhism.”

Whatever other values are intermixing with the X-Buddhisms in the contemporary West—or certainly, in the United States, where I live—those that originate in psychology are unquestionably among them. Is this cross fertilization salutary? Given the proliferation of mutual admiration societies and celebratory books and workshops, one would assume that the question has been settled. But before allowing psychology’s values to transfuse unseen into the various mélanges of Western/Secular/Progressive/Post/Mindfulness/X-Buddhisms, may we consider the opposite: that the genetic admixture of Buddhism and psychology produces sick—albeit socially “well-adjusted”—progeny?

I present to you here and essay by Tom Pepper (links at the end of the post) that does just that. Pepper’s essay is an exemplary instance of what Speculative non-Buddhism sees as escorting Buddhism’s representatives to the Great Feast of Knowledge. But Pepper flips the script. Seated at the table there, Buddhism’s representatives must hold their own alongside of art, philosophy, literature, biology, psychology, and so on. Speculative non-Buddhism is extremely interested in listening in on the dialogue that ensues; it is eager to hear how Buddhism fares. Sitting at the Great Feast of Knowledge radically alters the contribution of Buddhism’s representatives. For, they are now stripped of their specularism, which they must, as democratic citizens of knowledge, check at the door. As Pepper shows here, however, the opposite of what I contend is just as true: Buddhism’s interlocutor, psychotherapy, is no less altered in this process of robust dialogue. Pepper’s Buddhism raises the suspicion (exposes the fact?) that psychotherapy, too, may come to the Feast with a sack full of transcendental tricks.

A note in passing. Pepper again raises the issue of ideology. (To my mind, he is virtually a lone voice, within Buddhist discourse, for doing so.) Citing Althusser, Pepper reminds us that ideological formation is unavoidable: there can be no “ideology-free” individual. Ideological critique is, among many other things, a way of accounting for difference—cultural, social, individual. A question in Pepper’s essay that is at the heart of the Speculative non-Buddhism project is the following: how does any given purported knowledge system go about, first, defining and then turning “bad subjects” (Athusser’s term), namely (Pepper here) “those who don’t function ‘all by themselves,’ back into good, productive, functioning, and most importantly unquestioning citizens of capitalism”?

Enjoy—and please join the Feast! (No need to check your bags.)

–Glenn Wallis

Should Buddhism be Therapy?

by Tom Pepper

Lately, the idea that Buddhism is a kind of psychotherapy seems to be everywhere.  And it doesn’t just seem that way.  In the last hundred and forty years, the Psychinfo database lists 1,695 references to Buddhism; 990 of them, about 58%, occur  in the last decade.  In the last decade alone, there have been over 100 doctoral dissertations that discuss Buddhism and psychology in some form.  Although connections between Buddhism and western pscychology were being made from the very beginning of psychology as a discipline, they seem to have really reached critical mass sometime around the turn of the century.

Books on Buddhism are beginning the migration from the “Religion and Philosophy” section to the “Psychology and Self-Help” section, as Buddhism has become the new fad in psychotherapy, with “mindfulness” replacing “cognitive” as the hot new buzz word every kind of therapy needs to add to its name.  Although I don’t think any of these new fad therapies comes even close to understanding whatsati means, or its role in Buddhist practice, I don’t want to discuss the problems with the mindfulness industry here.

Instead, I would like to consider whether we really want Buddhism to be transformed into  a kind of therapy.  It may at first blush seem to be an obvious connection: both Buddhism and psychotherapy seek to relieve suffering, so of course we should look to combine them.  What could be better than to graft the age-old wisdom of the Far East onto modern scientific knowledge?  It’s the best of both worlds, right?

But I think it might be better to consider what it is that psychology, as a discipline, and more specifically the practice of psychotherapy, is really designed to do.  And, then, to consider whether Buddhism can fill that function without abandoning everything that makes it a distinct body of practice and thought.  In this brief comment, I don’t intend to give the final word, but to introduce a framework in which to consider the question.  It is my contention that the function of psychology and psychotherapy has always been to adjust individuals to their role in society, to make them more functional and less discontented with the existing social system.  I would argue that this is not, and cannot be, a function that Buddhist thought could possibly serve well—particularly not in the social system of late capitalism.

What does psychology do?

Although this has been written about at length by many philosophers and psychologists (mostly from outside the U.S.), their work has been largely ignored by mainstream psychology, so I will take a moment to recapitulate: psychology was invented as, and continues to serve as, an ideological support for the western capitalist social system; it has never been, and in its present form could not support, a scientific study of the human mind or behavior.

William James was clear on this point when he was trying to introduce the first course in psychology at Harvard; he saw an ideological threat from the popularity of classes in Darwinian theory and Marxism, and believed that a pseudo-scientific version of philosophy would attract more students, and be an opportunity to inculcate capitalist ideology instead of the radical thought being encouraged in these other new courses.  He went to Germany, and borrowed from Wundt only the parts of the discipline that would serve his ideological purpose (he had no interest, for example, in Wundt’s “Volkerpsychologie”).  His new discipline was very popular, and served its purpose well, despite the fact that James himself later lost interest in it.  By the twentieth century, the discipline found a new function: combating the dangerously radical implications of psychoanalysis with forms of therapy that were much less prone to lead to serious thought about the structure of the subject and of society.  For Freud, to quote Russell Jacobs, “psychoanalysis is negative: a theory of a subject-less subject . . . Negative psychoanalysis is “twice” objective in that it traces at first the objective content of subjectivity, and second, discovers there is only an objective configuration to subjectivity” (p. 80). The content of our subjectivity can be traced all the way through and back out, to the social formations in which we live. If the deepest disturbance of our psyches turns out to be a product of contradictions in social formations, then we might just think about changing them. The neo-Freudians and post-Freudians transformed psychoanalysis into something far more comforting and less radical, “aimed,” as Andrew Collier has put it, “at securing adherence to moral ideals by flattering human vanity, not at lessening human misery by creating greater self understanding” (p. 23).

I’m not going to address, here, the dismissal of psychoanalysis as a Victorian ideology.  I will simply assert that psychoanalysis is, as Andrew Collier has argued, far more scientific than the discipline of psychology.  Everywhere outside of psychology and a few other social sciences, the naive empiricism of what psychology takes to be the “scientific method” has been so thoroughly discredited that it should hardly be necessary to rehearse the argument yet again.  The response of psychology has simply been to stick its head in the sand and ignore all philosophical and scientific arguments that discredit it. There seems to be a general attitude among psychologists that “whatever I refuse to understand can be safely ignored.” As a result, the entire discipline has been producing a positivist ideology of the subject for over a hundred years, in the guise of “science.”  This argument has been made quite thoroughly by many people for decades now, and to my knowledge nobody has made a serious attempt to refute it—it has simply been ignored.

And this brings me to the central point about what the clinical branch of psychology does today: psychotherapy is in the business of producing ideology.  I mean ideology here in a very specific sense: the set of beliefs and values, embedded in specific practices, which enable people to interact with their world.  Ideology need not be false beliefs, although it may include them, but it is not descriptive of reality outside of itself. In Althusser’s terms, it is not the real conditions of existence that ideology presents; rather, it is the set of practices and beliefs in which we function in our real conditions of existence. To produce ideology, then, is not necessarily a bad thing, because, in the Althusserian sense, we must always have ideology. Without it, we would still be living as animals, each generation discovering all over again how to find food and make a fire.

The problem is, though, that psychology is producing ideology, and very specifically American capitalist ideology, while pretending to be producing science. Thus, its function is to delude people, to cause people to mistake ideologies for ineluctable truths about the nature of human beings. Its success should not be surprising, since it is the nature of capitalism to require that most its subjects remain deluded about the nature of the social formations in which they participate.

Psychotherapy has become an industry designed to make what Althusser refers to as “bad subjects,” those who don’t function “all by themselves,” back into good, productive, functioning, and most importantly unquestioning citizens of capitalism.  I will give just one example, from the most prevalent form of psychotherapy today, cognitive behavioral therapy, although this could easily be demonstrated with every form of therapy in existence, with the possible exception of some forms of psychoanalysis.

When Beck argues that all ills derive from “distortions of reality based on erroneous premises and misconceptions,” and that the role of the therapist is to help “the patient to identify his warped thinking and to learn more realistic ways to formulate his experiences” ( p. 20), he is essentially arguing that the therapist should strive to limit the individual to a very superficial level of thought, to teach her not to question the social construction of the concepts framing her thinking, and to suppress her irrational negative thoughts.  Therapy is to be limited to dealing with the reasonableness of judgments about self-worth and abilities, and never to question the very concepts on which those judgments are based.  Core beliefs are understood to be at the level of “I am worthless,” but it is hard to imagine any thoughtful human being for whom this is the most basic level of belief.

The plethora of faddish new Buddhism-psychology hybrids have all followed the lead of existing therapies: accepting western, especially American, social forms and values as a transcendent norm, they see their mission as compensating for Buddhism’s “failure,” for its inability to enable people to meet “developmental challenges” or succeed in the workplace or romantic relationships.  Buddhism, even for the self-described Buddhists among the multitude of psychologists and psychiatrists in this new field, is seen as inadequate to the demands of modern life, and in need of retooling. The thought that the demands of modern life are at fault is taken as itself a sign of illness, a refusal to “develop” or an infantile demand that the world change to meet our  needs; worse, for Buddhism, desire to make changes to the social formation is a sign of failure to achieve equanimity, and so as thoroughly un-Buddhist.

John Welwood, for instance, who has been peddling a purported Buddhist psychotherapy for decades now, clearly sees Buddhism as “avoiding” the demands of “real life.”  His therapeutic goal is to help clients achieve “ordinary developmental landmarks—earning a livelihood through dignified, meaningful work, raising a family, sustaining a long-term intimate relationship, belonging to a larger social community” (Fosella, p. 43),  instead of questioning that norm. In one of his essays on his website, he discusses the case of a young woman who goes to India and spends seven years studying with Tibetan teachers, but then returns to Europe and is unfortunately unprepared to live out the role of a western wife and mother. He sees this as a failing of Buddhism, but it should not be surprising at all. Producing proper middle class western subjects is the goal of American psychology, not of Tibetan Buddhism. It is unfortunate that after seven years she did not know this, but then, neither does Welwood seem to know what his practice is actually doing.

What Could Buddhism Do?

Is there any way that a correct understanding of the concept of anatman, or of dependent origination, could be harnessed to the goals of psychotherapy?  From the perspective of “non-Buddhism” it is, of course, clear that Buddhist practices have very often been successfully used to produce ideologies in a surprisingly wide range of social formations.  Perhaps some of these ideologies were not at odds with the ultimate goal of Buddhism (which I consider to be eliminating the suffering of all beings); it may be that some of the forms of subjectivity Buddhism has produced served to promote this goal, and others did not.  It would be my hypothesis that those that did not promote this goal did not remain true to these fundamental concepts of anatman and dependent origination, but of course that is something that would require some careful philosophical and historical analysis to determine.

I would suggest, however, that the attempt to produce a Buddhist psychotherapy necessarily requires that we abandon the most important insights of Buddhist thought, or at least distort them in ways that will only promote delusion, and so increase suffering.  Perhaps such therapies might even reduce suffering for those who are the immediate recipients, but only at the expense of reproducing social formations that cause suffering for others. To make a rather  extreme analogy, it  is perfectly possible to imagine a worldview which would make slave owners perfectly happy with their lives, without even any repressed or unexamined suffering; that this world view would not meet the requirement of ending suffering for all beings is clear enough, but only from the outside.

The concept of anatman seems to be the most elusive for the world of psychology today; it is perhaps the most elusive for most people in most times.  However, for those willing to entertain the thought of Freud and Lacan, it is no longer difficult to accept that the ego is an illusory misrecognition, and that even the depths of the unconscious turn out to be constructed in language and social formations of which the subject is merely an effect. The concept of anatman has the potential today, as it did in Buddha’s time, to allow us to step outside of our ideological construction, and to use our capacity for symbolic thought to make distinctions between what is produced by human social formations and what is produced by natural causes that will remain beyond our capacity to change.  It is precisely the goal of psychology, as a discipline, to blend these two categories into one, and to convince us that the subject as historically produced is an historically transcendent given.

The concept of anatman fundamentally insists on the absolute meaningless of human consciousness, because if we are only the aleatory effect of a structure, arisen for a brief moment of cosmological time, then we can neither be the cause nor the end of what exists. The great insight of Buddhism, and the reason Buddhism can help us to stop suffering and causing others to suffer. is that we humans have the capacity to see the truths about ourselves. When Buddhists go along with the positivist ideology of the subject promoted by psychology, they are giving up the most important component of the human capacity to end suffering: insight, understanding, enlightenment, the ability to see reality clearly. To use a metaphor I have often employed to explain the concept of ideology, ideology assumes you know where you are going, and that the existing roadmap is correct, and sets out do design a useful mode of transportation. The two most pernicious types of ideology are (a) when we produce ideology based on an incorrect concept of reality (in my metaphor, when you build a bus to go across a lake) or (b) when an ideological discourse and its concomitant practice pretend to be producing scientific knowledge (if it tries to convince us that its bus is the only mode of transportation possible). Psychology does both of these; Buddhist thought would have us get off the bus and try to determine what is not on our roadmap.  Once we abandon the attachment to the self, our capacity to think about reality improves enormously. This is not, as too many western Buddhists are quick to insist, the arrogance of thought; rather, it is the humility of recognizing how much thinking is left to do!  In fact, it is abandoning this challenge that is the height of arrogance, assuming that we have reached the limits of thought already, when in fact we have quite a ways to go.  To quote one of my favorite books on the subject of anatman, Peter Harvey’s The Selfless Mind: “When a person lets go of everything, such that ‘his’ identity shrinks to zero, then citta expands to infinity.  Whatever one grasps at and identifies with as ‘I am’ limits one” (p. 62).

The power of Buddhist concepts and Buddhist practice could be that they allow us to see reality clearly and produce ideologies that help work to minimize suffering (these ideologies, then, would be the only kind of “views” that, as Buddhists, we must hold lightly). Buddhism cannot be therapeutic in the way psychology wants it to, adjusting subjects to an existing social formation, without distorting beyond recognition (or simply ignoring) the fundamental concepts of Buddhist thought.  But, perhaps Buddhism has already become, in the west, too inexorably “therapeutic,” in which case non-Buddhism may be the only solution.


Althusser, L. 1971.  “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatusses (Notes towards an Investigation.” Lenin and Philosophy.  Trans. Ben Brewster.  New York: Monthly Review Press.

Beck, A. 1976. Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders.  New York: Penguin Books.

Collier, A. 2003.  R. D. Laing: The philosophy and politics of pscychotherapy. New York: Pantheon Books.

Fossella, T. 2011.  “Human Nature, Buddha Nature: An Interview With John Welwood.”  Tricycle Magazine.

Harvey, P. 1995.  The Selfless Mind.  New York: Routledge Curzon

Jacoby, R. 1975. Social amnesia: A critique of contemporary psychology from Adler to Laing.  Boston: Beacon Press.

Tom Pepper

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46 responses to “Sick Progeny? Buddhism and Psychotherapy”

  1. earl Avatar

    To the extent that Buddhism has something to do with cultivating a more accurate awareness of reality (to the service of reducing delusion and the suffering alluded to above) one should note that the general implication of Tom’s post is that Buddhism and perhaps psychotherapy should be about transforming societal cultures. In so far as Buddhism (of whatever sort or stripe) has not accomplished this in the last 2500 years, this should be seen as either a very long-term or a very improbable undertaking. Part of an accurate awareness of reality includes an acceptance of the vast imperfections of any and all post agrarian human cultures. Different cultural organizational premises and structures have different strengths and weaknesses, which are adapted to the geological, historical, and other plate-tectonic forces which through evolutionary processes lead to change in economic and other societal regulatory systems. Certainly the alleviation of human suffering, on an individual basis, for those of us who actually do this sort of work is not, and logically cannot be about not having people adjust themselves to the actual reality of the societies in which they exist. Ideologies (Buddhism included) are good and useful only to the extent to which they enhance actual life as it is lived. Or, Man was not meant to serve the Sabbath as it was said in a different context. I would also note that there is a perhaps unselfconscious elitism which attaches to academic discussions of suffering, which is far removed in the actual course of living from the suffering of actual people which is not well reflected or understood in these sorts of ideological discussions.

  2. poep sa frank jude Avatar

    Tom, thanks for a really thought-provoking essay. There’s much here that I totally agree with you about, and yet some lingering questions that — as I think Earl too is wondering about — take the discussion down from the somewhat rarefied academics to the nitty-gritty life experience of suffering individuals.

    I have long said that there is nothing I have taken part in that is as counter-cultural as my buddhist-based practice. I agree that buddhism’s thought and practice can function as a critical voice, questioning american/western social and political forms, through it’s teachings on not-self and the contingent nature of reality. That said, I know all too many folk who have starved themselves to near death, or who are in prison for having — as they say — “lost their shit one day and killed someone,” as well as addicts who have brought upon themselves and their loved ones (as well as often much collateral damage to ‘innocent bystanders,’ so to speak) that have indeed saved their lives with the very therapy you single out — mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy.

    I have had too many students tell me they loathe themselves, think they are fat (when they are skeletal), and unworthy to live and be happy to dismiss what Beck says in your quote above. These people are not going to question social structures while in the midst of such suffering. When their distorted perceptions and thoughts are addressed and they are free from such destructive patterns, they are in a better position to begin questioning capitalism, for instance.

    You criticize Welwood for helping clients achieve “ordinary developmental landmarks—earning a livelihood through dignified, meaningful work, raising a family, sustaining a long-term intimate relationship, belonging to a larger social community” (Fosella, p. 43), instead of questioning that norm. How is this ‘norm’ any different from the buddha’s eightfold path? I know many more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk who have used such therapy to grow confident and accepting of themselves, no longer feeling or thinking that they are ‘broken’ because they do not fit that norm. This comes about largely through questioning the validity of the ‘norm’ for them as individuals. So this seems an example of where psychotherapy does what you say it cannot, while buddhism’s 8-fold path helps form well-adjusted social units!

    I am not asking these questions in an attitude of critique, but rather real curiosity. Obviously, you have given this matter a lot of thought and I am eager to learn more about your perspective. I hope my questions aren’t too simplistic or irrelevant and that you can offer some creative response as to how one might respond to those who currently seek and benefit from such therapy, without the ideological brain-washing you so pointedly explore.

    Thanks, again.

  3. Will Yaryan Avatar

    Pepper gives an excellent critique of the major thrust of Buddhist modernism.

  4. Vajramrita Mahottara (@vajramrita) Avatar

    You may be interested in the writing of James Low, a dzogchen lineage holder and practising pyschotherapist:

    He’s written a number of articles on the subject of Psychotherapy and Buddhism, many of which can be read here:

    All this just as a counterpoint to conclusion you draw.

  5. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Vajramitra,

    Can you elaborate on the “counterpoint” to Tom Pepper that James Low represents? I think our readers here would appreciate your doing some of that work up front, before going to Low himself. Perhaps Low himself could make a few comments in response to Pepper’s thesis.


  6. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Poep sa Frank Jude,

    There are really two issues here. The first is that I am not suggesting that we should wait until capitalism is topple to address all suffering. We should not even wait until we make some progress toward enlightenment. There are some kinds of suffering that Buddhism just doesn’t address, and there’s nothing wrong with getting help elsewhere. If you have leprosy, don’t waste your time meditating about it: it is easily treatable. If there is a treatment for some kind of suffering, go ahead and get treated. I would, however, question your optimism about CBT. I have looked at the research, and it generally doesn’t help much more than just about any other kind of intervention. Some people will improve, most will not. So, I think that psychotherapy would benefit from recognizing that what it is actually trying to do is to re-interpellate individuals into mainstream capitalist ideology (yes, I know all about the “multicultural” fad, and yes, that is also part of mainstream capitalist ideology). If psychologists were able to be clear about what they are doing, they might do a better job of it.

    The second issue is my disagreement with Welwood and others who are calling their therapy Buddhist. It’s fine to help people develop better long-term romantic relationships, but this has never been a goal of Buddhism. If you want to do self-help pop-psychology therapy, go ahead, but when you call it Buddhism you confuse people about what Buddhism is. Too many people have read a book about “Zen and the art of . .” whatever, and think they know all about Buddhism and it is a waste of time. It is important that Buddhists keep pointing out that what these peddlers of popular fads are promoting is not Buddhism at all–so maybe some day they will try to find out more about what Buddhism really is.

    I really cannot follow the logic of your fourth paragraph, but I’ll try to respond. I don’t say psychotherapy can never reduce suffering for anyone–just that it is not reducing suffering in the way that Buddhism seeks to. I would also suggest that the way it reduces suffering for some individuals (e.g. finding “meaningful” work) depends very heavily on the suffering of many, many others–because in our current social system the vast majority simply MUST do meaningless, alienated work for the rest of us (myself included) to have our “meaningful” jobs.

    As for the example you give of someone with anorexia, well, that is a tough disorder, and hard to deal with, but CBT has had no success with it at all. You simply cannot “reason” somebody out of their irrational body image–it’s source is not simply a cognitive misperception. And perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to address the cultural and ideological reasons for the obsession with thinness, because there is clearly a cultural cause at work in the etiology of this disorder. Why do mostly girls from western,capitalist countries use this particular strategy to express their misery? Have your ever read Philip Cushman’s book “Constructing the Self, Constructing America”? I think he has an interesting approach to brining social and ideological issues into treatment of individual suffering.

    I kind of tried to address these issues in my brief essay, but I expected they would still come up. My question to you regards the one statement you made that I (perhaps naively?) absolutely did not expect to see. In what way do you mean that “norm” of Western capitalist culture is no different from the Eightfold Path? I think that Buddha’s encouragement of others to renounce the householder’s life and seek enlightenment in a new kind of “subculture” is about as far as I can imagine from the idea that Buddhism seeks to make a slightly happier “man in the gray flannel suit.” Can you expand on what you meant by that?

    Thanks for your response. I hope this discussion can maintain the level of discourse you’ve started out with. 


  7. Vajramrita Mahottara (@vajramrita) Avatar


    I’m not going to speak for James Low and neither would I presume to outline his thought here in a few paragraphs. I have sent him a message through his website, as any of us here could have done, alerting him to the existence of this blog and to the comments mentioning his work. I will presume that he will respond if he sees fit to do so.

    My personal opinion is that seeing the true nature of suffering is not necessarily something someone who visits a psychotherapist is looking to do. This is unlike someone who visits and understands the objectives of a “traditional” Buddhist master. The blending of the two, for me, is one of falling through the levels. Didn’t the Buddha himself teach at using different conceptual frameworks depending on the audience who was listening? Then so a therapist who has a deep synthetic knowledge of both emptiness and psychoanalysis can present to the patient that which best serves the patient at that particular time.

    Sorry if my reply is somewhat of a disappointment!


  8. poep sa frank jude Avatar


    Thanks for your quick and clarifying reply.

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought CBT is any kind of panacea. Humans are way too complicated for any one modality to serve all needs. What you say of CBT can be said of any form of psychotherapy, as well as much surgery and medication: it helps some and not others. However, I don’t know how you can say so unequivocally that CBT cannot help people suffering from anorexia. I personally know many. And they are most vocal in criticizing those who reduce the cause of anorexia to “the cultural and ideological reasons for the obsession with thinness,” which is what I too had believed to be the major cause. Perhaps one might argue that they are in denial, but that would seem patronizingly belittling to me, and they have all expressed strongly to me that to suggest their anorexia was caused by cultural and ideological structures is narrowly myopic at best (they often use much angrier terms!). Certainly, something else is at work here.

    I don’t doubt that there are cultural reasons for the wide-spread dysmorphia among so many women (and even here, CBT and SSRIs have both been shown to be effective treatments), but the women I know who have suffered anorexia tell me it was more a matter of ‘control’ (common statements are “it seemed the only thing I could control given my life situation”). Common to all of them is some form of abuse (mostly late childhood and adolescence). And, finally, all of them have found ‘mindfulness’ practice and/or CBT, along with yoga-asana practice, to have been helpful in their recovery.

    As for Welwood and others who call their therapy “Buddhist,” I guess I was unaware that they do so! That they utilize “Buddhist” techniques is one thing, but I agree they are NOT teaching or practicing Buddhadharma. As I point out to students, the Indian military are teaching their sharpshooters pranayama, asana, and meditation, but that doesn’t mean it’s “Yoga!”

    As for my fourth paragraph, sorry if my logic seems askew. All I am saying there is that it seems too broad a brush to paint all psychotherapy as being nothing but making “well-adjusted to the norm” or “happier suits.” The GLBT folk I mention have found freedom from their suffering by seeing through the “normative” structures and by no longer trying to ‘fit in’ nor attempting to stay closeted. In fact, several of the GLBT people in my sangha ARE therapists because of their own path to self-awareness and acceptance through therapy and buddhist practice, both of which led to a critical questioning of normative cultural values.

    And as for the statement that you found surprising, I’m thinking of the Buddha’s teachings to lay people. He did not at all encourage everyone to ‘drop out’ into the renunciate ‘sub-culture.’ After all, said “sub-culture” depended upon the householders for its very existence! His teachings to his householder followers include financial advice (how much to save, how much to spend on themselves, and how much to donate to the sangha), relationship advice for husbands and wives, parenting advice etc. The sangha, in fact, as an institution could only have been founded in India at that time in its cultural, social, political evolution because of the rise of the new middle (merchant) classes, and with the patronage of the kings of the newly risen kingdoms.

    And this has been the situation in every country Buddhism has entered. Look at China, Tibet, and throughout Southeast Asia. Buddhism has always aligned itself with the status quo. As I wrote in my initial comment, if we engage with Buddhist teaching and practice seriously, it can indeed be ‘counter-cultural’ and while that seemed the ‘promise’ of Buddhism when interest in it first blossomed in the west, I think for the most part its become co-opted into the mainstream already. There are pockets of practitioners who still see the radical nature of the practice and its implications for capitalist society, but they are distinctly in the minority.

    Lastly, thanks for the book recommendation. I will be sure to add Cushman’s book to my “To Read List!”

    Gassho, or as said in Korean Seon, Hapchang,
    frank jude

  9. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I saw your response in my email yesterday, and I resisted an impulse to reply immediately because I was tempted to engage rhetorically rather than rationally. I would really prefer that the discussion not devolve into a debate that is more rhetoric than reason, and so I want to begin exactly by addressing the rhetorical problem here.

    The appeals to the suffering of anorexic women as a somehow more “true” source of knowledge about causes is perhaps effective argument for many people, but not very sound philosophically or scientifically. I find it very difficult to understand how the belief that weight is the only thing a woman can control is NOT the result of cultural and ideological structures. To simply accept their refusal to see this is to accept the positivist concept of subjectivity I mentioned in my essay. If they become so strongly angry at the suggestion that they are products of their culture, well, don’t most of us? That our own ideologies are in fact not ideologies but deep and abiding truths is one of the most powerful strategies of ideological reproduction.

    The appeal to suffering “GLBT folk” who have found self-awareness is the same rhetorical strategy. Sure, it’s great that being gay or lesbian is now socially accepted in mainstream America. I think this is a step forward in reducing suffering. However, we need to be careful not to use the term “norm” rhetorically, as many on the left are prone to do, to refer only to those things that we disapprove of. It should be clear by now that being GLBT has been fully accepted into the norm of our culture, and simply added to romantic relationships as something we should be obsessively concerned about instead of being socially active about economic policy or political reform.

    I have very often been accused of being angry, repressed, hostile, overly-intellectual, and a bad Buddhist because I am not willing to accept these rhetorical responses. Sure, the feelings of an anorexic girl are real, but to accept them as the final answer is, to my mind, more cruel in the long run because we will never find the solution to the problem on more than a case by case basis. I may be “narrowly myopic” to consider the bigger picture (nice rhetorical move there), but so far the “farsighted” positivism of CBT has not been very successful; you appeal to cases you know of personally, but the outcome research, despite always trying to put a positive spin on things, still paints a pretty bleak picture.

    It strikes me that the major difficulty with addressing the discipline of psychology is quite simply the insistence that our ideology is NOT an ideology. You seem most defensive about the suggestion that psychology is producing ideology, but I really do not think this is “too broad a brush.” Read Jacoby’s book cited in my essay, or the work of Kurt Danziger (a psychologist who has attempted to take an objective look at his own discipline). If you can find an example of a form of therapy, except maybe some versions of Lacanian psychoanalysis, that does NOT function to reproduce subjects of capitalism who happily “work all by themselves,” I would truly like to hear about it. I have been searching avidly for years, and really Cushman’s “Hermeneutic therapy” is the only thing I’ve found that even attempts it. He’s not a Buddhist, and never mentions Buddhism, but his idea of helping people to examine how their subjectivity is, in fact, much more socially constructed than they would like to believe is on of the things I think Buddhist concepts and practices can help to do.

    And just one more point (as I have often mentioned, I am not good at being succinct). I think it is essential to avoid hypostasizing Buddhism: rather than saying that Buddhism “aligned itself with the status quo,” we can instead see Buddhism as a potentially radical practice that the “status quo” needed to absorb and contain. Buddha taught at a time when radical social transformation was perhaps inevitable; his teaching could have made that transformation peaceful, rational, and positive. Instead, it took a massive war to make the transformation, and it was hardly as progressive as it had the potential to be–and, eventually, Buddhism disappeared almost completely in its country of origin.

    I would not want to use the term “counter-cultural,” since the counter-culture is itself an ideological position. Instead, I would want to suggest that Buddhism can be a practice which can distance ideological practices sufficiently to allow for more rational production of ideological practices. There is a powerful resistance to seeing our own ideology AS ideology–we like to think that everyone else has beliefs but I have the “truth.” This is the radical potential of Buddhism, to allow us to hold our ideologies lightly, without, like the post-modernists, giving up on any idea of a mind-independent reality.

    What I see as the challenge here is to not let the industry of psychology co-opt Buddhism for its ideological agenda and then assert that it has the orthodoxy and those “pockets of practitioners” you mention are not real Buddhists. They may say they are just “using Buddhist techniques,” but it amounts to the same thing–an attempt to transform Buddhism into just a pile of techniques to be used in therapy.

    And I am quite serious about seeking a kind of therapy that is not directed toward producing properly functioning Bourgeois Humanist Subjects (as we used to call them in grad school). I got my PhD in British Literature back in the epoch of high theory, and now, after many years of teaching, am once again a grad student in psychology–and in despair over the state of the discipline, and on the verge of quitting. I try to keep this separate from my Buddhist beliefs and practices, but I have to admit that my Buddhist beliefs have made me terribly averse to attempts to delude people into thinking they are all better.

    I apologize again for my rather lengthy posts.


  10. earl Avatar

    Tom, I definitely agree that psychology is an ideology. It is actually quite a few different ones in ongoing evolutionary conflict and battle for dominance. Of course Buddhism is also an ideology, and likewise there are many different Buddhisms. The thing, I really like about basic Buddhist philosophy (not being a Buddhist myself) is that it is so compatible with evolutionary models which I think must be the real foundation for all future human understanding of ourselves and the greater realities in which we are embedded. So, such concepts as impermanence, dependent origination, and emptiness are wonderfully accurate with regard to an evolutionary understanding of the phenomena of nature whether they be ideologies, societal structures, human lives or Buddhism itself.

    To some extent you seem to be disregarding these basic concepts when you reify Buddhism and psychotherapy as things, in themselves, and things that have these overarching characteristics. Obviously to speak about “things” at all we do have to generalize, but I think your brush is overly broad here. As a grad student in psychology you must be aware that the meta-analytic literature related to psychotherapy outcome, even just in CBT is so voluminous (and was even 30 years ago when I was a graduate student) that it cannot be simply summarized, and even a cursory review of that literature would not allow it to be summarized as essentially no better than placebo in general, and not even in the area of Anorexia (I did a quick google search on that one).

    But again, and not to myself miss the forest for the trees, psychotherapies of all sorts (like religions of all sorts) are meant to provide actual human beings with a sense of heightened control and well being when they are suffering. They may also have utility to the larger organisms in our environment such as cultures, political systems, nation-states, etc. in controlling the mass behavior of human beings (which seems to be your primary interest), but that is an entirely different level of analysis.

    Some of us, by nature, are not well suited to accepting the essential social matrix into which we are born. Such people make good academics, political activists, politicians or revolutionaries (among many other things). The practice of psychotherapy (or ministering as a healer to other human beings through whatever ideology or method) is simply not about cultural and political transformation and must focus on assisting a person to develop a more accurate, and that means more healthy way of perceiving and behaving within the fabric of community in which they exist.

    Finally, changing irrational cognition does change feeling through (and only through) the mediating influence of changed behavior. Thus cognitive (without behavioral) therapy would in fact not be good at changing emotion. However, through the modification of behavior, midbrain structures are then impacted and emotion is changed as people “walk the walk” and don’t just “talk the talk”.

    I am sorry that you are despondent about the field, but maybe that emotion is a really important one that carries strategic information.

    Warm regards


  11. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I’ve been hesitant to respond to you, because frankly it is clear that you haven’t understood a word of what I wrote, and I’m not sure I will ever be capable of making it clear to you. You say that psychology is an ideology, but then talk about the empirical research as if it had some value–clearly, you have ignored everything I argue about he ideology of positivism and empiricism and the meaning of the term ideology. (You also clearly don’t know what the word reify means). You refuse to make an effort to comprehend what I’ve said, and then give me a patronizing and condescending response; this is sort of the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and shouting.

    I’ll make just one point here. To say that therapy should never be political and then to claim that it always produces “a sense of heightened control and well being” is just to claim that the ideology you are producing I somehow NOT political. In other words, your argument amounts to saying that therapy should always only reproduce the existing social system, because that is “natural” and any other is “politcal.”

    No doubt this is the reason for you snide comment about my dissatisfaction with the discipline of psychology. To say that some of us are just “by nature” not suited to accept the “social matrix” just assumes that the social matrix is “natural” and should not be tampered with. Don’t worry, I have heard it from my professors repeatedly: don’t be “political,” psychology only deals with universal human nature. Anyone who is unhappy with that is just not suited to psychology. The conservative forces are fully in control of the psychology industry, you have little to worry about.

    Perhaps someone else could make this claim more skillfully. In fact, the argument about the ideology if the discipline of psychology, and the pseudo-science of the psychological “empirical method,” has been made often and well by so many others, I doubt I could ever do it better.

    Try reading some of the book I mentioned with an open mind. Danziger’s “Naming the Mind” is a great place to start for a psychologist.


  12. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I would also like to hear what James Low thinks of this matter. I’m not sure how he give a “counterpoint” in his writing. I have read only a couple of his essays, and it seemed to me he was saying some correct things about psychotherapy, and some correct things about Buddhism, and simply bridging the gap with “skillful means.” He seems to me to suggest it is okay to give people half truths an ideology if they aren’t ready for the truth of the Dharma. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for me personally. I doubt I will ever feel sufficiently enlightened to believe that when I delude people with half-truths in therapy it is in their own best interest; I just don’t have that kind of confidence. I prefer to give them the whole truth to the best of my ability, and think they can handle it as well as I can.

    As I said, I’ve only read a couple of his essays, and I may be misrepresenting him. I wouldn’t expect you to speak for him, but can you give a suggestion as to which of his many writings is a good place to start?


  13. Toni Bernhard Avatar

    Thank you for leaving a comment at my Psychology Today piece on the Brahma Viharas:

    In case you didn’t see my response, I thought I’d copy and paste it here:

    Thanks so much for providing this link. I enjoyed your post and the article by Tom Pepper.

    You may have noticed that I’m not a therapist even though I post my articles at Psychology Today (and appreciate their willingness to host me). I’m a former law professor and my Buddhist perspective is not influenced by modern psychology although I often quote what the Dalai Lama likes to say about the Buddha: that he was a great psychologist. I’ve practiced in the Theravadin tradition for 20 years.

    You may have noticed that I’ve published a book that uses the Buddha’s teachings to help people with chronic illness and chronic pain. One chapter is titled “Who Is Sick?” In it, I cover anatta (anatman) in detail, making it clear that this was the great insight of the Buddha — the insight that separated him from the Hindu teachings of his day — the teachings he grew up with. There’s also a chapter in the book on dependent origination.

    Psychotherapy appears to have benefitted from many of the Buddha’s teachings. I just learned about a relatively new branch of therapy called MBCT — mindfulness-based cognitive therapy — which helps people see that thoughts and emotions arise and pass away due to causes and conditions and need not be identified with as “me” or “mine.” This seems to me to be a good application of the Buddha’s teachings to therapy. That said, I have no expertise in the field of psychotherapy. I’m just a Buddhist!

    Warmest wishes,

  14. earl Avatar

    Tom, thanks for the Danziger book, that was really fabulous. I’ve skimmed through a bit of it, and agree with it totally so far. Of course the metaphors we use are arbitrary. Although the systems which we develop which then relate them to one another, cannot be, if they are to relate meaningfully to reality. As for our point, the fact that metaphor systems are arbitrary and not in any sense absolute, doesn’t mean that empiricism, with all of its obvious flaws, doesn’t contain important information. It does seem as though you would prefer to just disregard all of it on the basis of these limitations?. And in favor of semantic disputation alone? Of course, the point here is that at a particular point in time at a particular place we do use certain metaphors and not others. In order to work meaningfully with people who are having problems you tend to have to use their metaphor systems rather than your own. I found it humorous long ago watching some of my young friends and colleagues feeling the need to turn their clients into behaviorists before they could help them out. I’m wondering if you’re coming from a different place with that, albeit with a radically different ideology. I am certainly not suggesting that what I do, cannot (or even should not) be viewed from the perspective of political ideology. I’m just saying that one can’t serve two masters. Either you’re about helping a person out today when they walk into your office, or you’re about something else primarily. Oh, and sorry about triggering negative emotions for you with my differences in opinion and observations. I certainly mean you no disrespect as a person. We all do, however, have very different life experiences, which is why we can sometimes learn interesting things from one another. Although, I do hear you saying that you’ve heard all of this before.

    Thanks for the reference and Best wishes


  15. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hello Tom

    I find the differentiation you make convincing and it is well supported. I was recently skimming through Alain Ehrenberg‘ s latest book (french title „La Société du malaise“, I don‘t know if there is already an english translation). He takes a look at american and french psychology and psychoanalysis from the standpoint of sociology. Probably you know him anyway.

    He is working under a certain hypothesis of which the conclusion is that „mental health“ is a „language game“ which is pervading social life and is as such constitutive for a certain sociality. Probably what in your argumentation is ideology. He makes the point that this language game is indispensable for social cohesion and coherence.

    This ideology or language game and its society is something like an autopoietic structure which makes its outside look uninhabitable or even inexistent. You say that ideologies are not seen as ideologies but as deep and abiding truths and that this is one of the most powerful strategies of ideological reproduction. Buddhism is in the process of being integrated into this structure – and with it a certain language arises.

    I think I understand what you mean with the „radical potential of buddhism“, but in the last part of your text you use a language which could be confusing. It is the language which is used also by the ideology you criticize. I think one can understand what your point is but should a non-buddhistic project not strive for new descriptions, terms, words etc.?

    You speak of „suffering“ and the „end of suffering“, „attachment to the self“ or even „enlightenment“ etc. Are these not also Glenn‘s buddhemes? Maybe it is necessary for non-buddhism to work on a different language too. Otherwise it is in danger to be missinterpreted by people who are abhorred by wellness-buddhism anyway but could be interested in the concept of anatman that has the potential to allow us to step outside of our ideological construction, as you formulate it? When you speak about „the great insight of Buddhism“ then it is clear in your context but you use the same term as ,them‘. Why not drop the term „buddhism“ altogether and speak about a certain great insight and then describe it in fresh language. This would help create a new space outside the rules, grammars, rhetorics etc. of the positivistic ideology of psychology and psychological buddhism.

    I think the same goes for „the power of Buddhist concepts and Buddhist practice“. What concepts and practices are their from the standpoint of non-buddhism? For example how could a non-buddhistic practice guide look like?

    Maybe another strategy could be to re-contextualize buddhemes, to kidnap them and such, in a guerilla manner, to break the rules of the established game and to open up every now and then a gap in the wall of wellness.

    Maybe I am overly sensible in the use of terms. Anyway, thanks for your essay. It certainly makes a good point.

    So long, Matthias

  16. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Just two quick points one not so important and one VERY important. First, my “negative emotions” are not at all important here–I certainly won’t be devastated by disagreement of any kind; no doubt there is evident negative emotion in my last post, but it results from my perpetual frustration at my own inability to make my argument sufficiently clear. (It is clear to me, for instance, that you still do not get my point–and are as yet far from getting the point of Danziger’s book; it is a book that is easy to misread when skimming, I think).

    The important point, and to me this is VERY important, is that I am absolutely not suggesting that we turn from empiricism to “semantic disputation alone.” I do not accept the Rorty position that hard sciences are empirical and human sciences are “language games.” There are, and have been for decades, realist epistemologies available to the social sciences that are far more advanced that the naive positivist empiricism they still embrace; I would very much like to see psychology become a true science, but to do so it would have to give up the grossly outdated notion that the only alternative is empiricism or the “linguistic turn.”

  17. Tom Pepper Avatar


    You’ve raised what I think of as the most important (and difficult) issue in philosophy today, and so it is certainly a concern for any attempt at non-ideological Buddhism: what exactly is the role of language in shaping our experience of the world?

    As many have argued (Ehrenberg among them), therapy is hopelessly bound to the practice of restoring individuals to the hegemonic ideology, and that ideology is one that constructs subjectivity as always craving, desiring, dissatisfied, and in need to professional intervention. To eliminate the need for therapy (in this sense of a practice of professional re-interpellation) would be to eliminate the possibility of perpetuating the existing social formation. (By the way, I am envious of your ability to “skim through” “La Societe du malaise,” at best, I plod through French and so mostly just wait for translations.)

    The response to this post so far from people in the psychotherapy industry is representative: they take any attempt to address ideology as a fanatical deviation from the natural and healthy state. Therapists must see themselves as reproducing a natural state, and any attempt to examine whether those values and interests and activities ARE in fact “natural” is seen as a pathological over-intellectualism or political activism. It is unthinkable that therapy might NOT produce ideology, might actually serve to distance and examine the individual’s ideology, because that itself is seen, always, as a dangerously radical act.

    This response is in part a refusal to see that their own conservative beliefs are in fact ideological (sort of like Eagleton’s quip that ideology is like halitosis, only the other guy has it). But it is also connected to this issue of the power of language, to the belief that there is no room for thought that eludes absolute relativism because all thought is in language. Not that most psychologists have thought this through, but they do tend to share the ubiquitous postmodern worldview.

    This is where my own understanding of Buddhism would come in. I refuse to take the “linguistic turn,” and remain a staunch realist. I think that the Buddha of the Pali Canon was absolutely a realist, and if we simply understand certain terms in this way, like understanding “ditthi” to refer to what we would today call ideologies, then we can read Buddha as teaching practice for distantiating our own ideologies, without necessarily simply adopting another one. As you say, the language game makes “its outside look uninhabitable,” and this is its power. The difficulty is, if the “language game” you mention is to continue it must pull everything into its vortex, and the strategy it is currently taking for pulling Buddhism in is to incorporate it into the discourse of therapy.

    I’m not sure whether it is necessary to give up on certain terms because they are also used in an ideological sense, used in a practice and discourse which produces rather than distance ideologies. Maybe it is; in fact, many people have suggested to me that it is better to give up the term ideology because it is so often misused as to almost always be misunderstood. On the other hand, we could always take the Bhaktinian approach that language is always a struggle for the meanings of terms and the construal of the world, and just insist on our own use. After all, inventing new language in which to speak of things may sometimes be necessary, but there is nothing to stop the ideologues from co-opting the new terms as well.

    I would be interesting to know what practices and concepts would help to distantiate our ideologies. What would meditation be if it stopped being a seeking for the imaginary plenitude of the Heideggerian pure-being? Perhaps it would look more like psychoanalysis at its best: following the trail of our subjective depths all the way down and back out again, to realize how discourses and practices construct our “small minds.” Perhaps it would be a mindful awareness of every daily action, not to live it’s full (non-conceptual) presence, but to understand the full social and ideological construction and implications of every simple thing we do (taking out the garbage, cooking dinner, driving a car, everything has vast social implications).

    I don’t think you’re overly sensitive to the use of terms; you are picking up on a sensitive issue about the role of language in constructing our world that has great bearing on this issue. If we accept, with Rorty, that the hard sciences can be “realist” but everything else is completely relativist, then the terms we pick are the most important question. As a realist, I tend to take the position that the terms we pick only need to be made clearer; otherwise they do wind up only as “buddhemes,” as unexamined ideological practices instead of concepts that can distance that ideology.

    Thanks for your thoughts,


  18. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Just a quick addendum to my reply above. I would also say that every time we play the language game, we’ve already lost, because we’ve already accepted the linguistic-constructivist assumption that language alone constructs our world. We could easily find new terms without changing anything at all. In my professional field (literary theory) far too many people simply changed terms from “irony and ambiguity” to “aporia and differance,” but they were still doing Anglo-American New Critical close reading with fancy french post-structuralist terms. Adopting new terms didn’t change the PRACTICE, so it didn’t change the ideology. A realist approach would have to follow Althusser’s insistence (and I know, he can sometimes sound rather linguistic himself) that an ideology is always primarily located in a practice (we kneel and pray, and THEN we believe in God). So, different terms may or may not help–what is much more important is that we don’t just relabel the same practice, which is, I think, what “buddhemes” are often functioning to do.

  19. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hello Tom

    First, I am not reading french. I did not want to make this impression, I just wanted to give the title of the original. I read the german translation of the Ehrenberg-book „Das Unbehagen in der Gesellschaft“.

    The most important point in this exchange for me is what you said in the addendum about practice. Old wine in new bottles is not what I am looking for. My frustration with the connotational field of the word „meditation“ is simply that it does not fit with what I am doing and experiencing. But maybe your option isn‘t so bad: to insist on a certain meaning of a term and insisting also that everybody else makes it clear what exactly they mean. This could be a practice in itself in that people would reflect on their unconscious constructive use of language and are forced to express what is otherwise unthought.

    Regarding language, for me it simply would be silly to say „that language alone constructs our world“. This thought makes me dizzy because language itself as part of this world then would be a creatio ex nihilo. I like to be pragmatic about such topics and maybe I am not so far apart from a realism. But I am also aware of how powerful language games can be (as we see in this thread too) and it seems to me that at least in part they deliver good approximations about how and what we are – if, and this is the distinguishing quality, the game remains on the outlook for new insights. The Bhaktinian approach you mention, „that language is always a struggle for the meanings of terms and the construal of the world“, might be a middle way here (you mean Mikhail Bahktin aren‘t you?). But is this then where non-philosophy wants to go?

    With language not being accountable for everything it still creates something. When you say „the Buddha of the Pali Canon was absolutely a realist“ you talk about a literary construct. But the main point here, I would say pragmatically, isn‘t about the construction but about a tool which enables us to see the outside of the system. This is what you mean perhaps when you say „that [Buddhism] provides an epistemology in which we can be aware of our own ideological practice“ (posting at „what is non-buddhism“), isn‘t it?

    Of course there have to be sound hermeneutics (oh, I hear your sigh!). One example might be the work of Sue Hamilton. In „Early Buddhism: A New Approach“ she develops the case that there is far too much emphasis on anattā translated as „there is no self“. „That you are is neither the question nor in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.“ (p. 23)

    This, I think, makes for a great start into real buddhism. The obsession in western buddhism with the self (e.g. Anam Thubten, „No Self No Problem“) is not coming from the Pali Canon but from a subject which is unknowingly forced into absolute autonomy where it is enthusiastically cheering it‘s exploitation, at the same time being clumsily aware that something is wrong.

    For me one solution, at least part of it, lies in the ability to pull out. The subject is fed with a steady stream of norms which uphold a certain worldview. Meditation as a relaxed non-reacting and just looking with every sense is, maybe, one step in direction of a real autonomy. One has to take back the space of consciousness. It is not the question that there is consciousness. It is the question which consciousness is emerging, that it functions as certain content and that this content does certain things – e.g. being desire. Meditation as relaxed non-reacting facilitates the insight that conscious content is not only there but also dissolving. Relaxed non-reacting to dissolution makes available the experience of being as just something which is watching – a very real something. Maybe – or am I wrong?

    And excuse me for being too long!

  20. Mike Lawrence Avatar
    Mike Lawrence

    It seems hypocritical to dismiss psychotherapy as a tool of the status quo which, at best “restores [patients] to functioning as capitalist cubicle-dwellers in states of blissfully medicated delusion” (to quote a comment by Tom Pepper on another entry on this blog), from a position of relative psychological health and material comfort. Forgive me for invoking ad hominem tu quoque but, to my knowledge, neither of you are suffering the devastating pain of mental suffering so great that it impairs your ability to satisfy such basic needs as feeding yourself and getting adequate sleep, and which isolates and estranges you from your fellow human beings. Neither are you living in anarcho-primitivist communes or monasteries, nor have you dropped out of society and relinquished the many protections and material quirks offered by the capitalistic society you seem to disdain. In other words, you are “functioning, capitalist cubicle-dwellers” hypocritically reaping the benefits of the continual existence of the capitalist society you propose to overthrow. The whole affair reeks of Trustafarian entitlement and Ivory Tower naivete.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us are living in the real world, dealing with “birth… aging… sickness… death… sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair… union with the hated… and separation from the loved.” Indeed, many of these basic manifestations of dukkha have been exacerbated by our industrialized society: isolation and loneliness, Perhaps some mental illness is even caused by the way our society is constructed. (Stephen Ilardi, for example, of the University of Kansas suggests that our sedentary, isolated, sleep-deprived lifestyles are to blame for the epidemic of depression.) Yet, I cannot help by notice that much of what you pathologize as maladies of American capitalistic ideology are often simple manifestations of human nature. For example, seeking acceptance of the tribal unit (family, peer group, romantic partners) is a natural drive long hardwired into our evolutionary inheritance. Without such drives, the human species would not have survived. Yes, psychotherapy helps people better “fit in” to their tribal unit. I fail to see anything inherently wrong with that. Perhaps you see such re-integration into a Western family unit as an act of affiliation and approbation of everything else Western capitalism is responsible for? If so, you’ve got an awful lot of mental unpacking to do.

  21. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I don’t want to address the personal attack here, other than to say that whenever someone attack me instead of addressing my argument, I can be pretty sure they are wrong. By the way, this is not an example of “tu quoque.” Oh, and it’s always good to know my world is not real, and I will never suffer aging, sickness and death.”

    But seriously, you have some serious conceptual unpacking to do. The bizarre leap from the “natural hardwired drive for tribal acceptance” to the insistence on the universality of precisely our modern forms of family, romance, and socialization is something you really need to reexamine. And it is this mistake that I think Buddhist practice can help with–it can help us to recognize the constructedness of these practices we take for natural, and determine how far the “hardwired” basis of them really extends. There has been enormous intellectual work over the last century on the social construction of our concepts of the nuclear family and of romantic love. Read some of it–it is very “enlightening.”

    As for whether psychotherapy is beneficial or culturally oppressive, well, I barely sketched those argument, but others have made them in much more detail. Look at some of the books mentioned above. My bigger point is, whatever therapy does, I for one don’t want Buddhism distorted and harnessed to that function.

  22. Ernst Avatar

    Hi Glenn and Tom. Thank you for this insightful blog and for this article in particular. I believe I view this article from a somewhat unique perspective: I have been through the mental health system as someone diagnosed with clinical depression, and I have lived to practice Buddhism to some of its transcendent fruits.

    The thing is, I find people who have never been mentally ill often credit the mentally ill with some superhuman intelligence or depth of insight into the prevailing sickness of our social constructions that is simply not there. Though the fact that more and more of us seem to be diagnosed with a mental illness every year might serve as a sort of “canary in the coalmine” to those on the outside, it’s a very different story inside such a person’s head. The mind of a depressive, obsessive-compulsive, anxious, or borderline-personality is not one conducive to awareness, particularly not the sort of metacognitive (meta-constructural, even) awareness necessary for insight into not-self or dependent origination. If you could observe their thoughts, you would soon realize that such people are hopelessly arrested at the level of the ideology that may be causing them such suffering: their thinking is repetitive and recursive, insular and claustrophobic. The same thoughts and preoccupations are mulled over again, and again, and again, ad nauseum.

    You would think that such fruitless rumination would cue the person to question the ideologies that are feuling their suffering, at least momentarily. In actuality, however, that rarely ever happens. When I was depressed, I could not step outside my preoccupations long enough to see the illusions they were built on. Many sadly become casualties of these unexamined ideologies (Charlotte Joko-Beck calls it “the substitute life”). My access-point to this insight was (drumroll…) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. It was there that I learned precisely how to step out of my assumptions, long enough to at least get me “unstuck” from my cognitive myopia. This freedom from preoccupation allowed me to go back to school, reunite with my estranged family and friends, and generally become a “good, productive, functioning… citizen of capitalism.” However, perhaps I was lucky, but my therapy stopped just sort of rendering me “unquestioning.”

    Most psychotherapy does not question the very foundation of the society in which it operates, that is true. As such, it is quite a bit less ambitious than Buddhism. However, I don’t think it quite warrants a jump to the conclusion that psychotherapy necessarily indoctrinates people into the social ideologies and renders them unquestioning allies of that ideology. At least in my case, the freedom from ruminative thought patterns and improved stability of my financial and social circumstances, allowed me the piece of mind to then question what it was that was actually driving me to think of myself as worthless, or a failure, or defective. Where had my concept of “worth” come from? Did my definitions of “success” really hold water, or were they built on non-existent constructs conditioned into me as my self-concept (and other-concept) was codified.

    Eventually, I could see that, via symbolic linguistic and experiential processes too complex and interdependent to really fathom, the entire foundation of my ideologies of self, the world, and other. I was able to see that many of those ideologies had manifested in what eventually I came to call “depression.” And I saw that many of those ideologies and assumptions had no basis in experiential reality. And this, in turn, led me to question many of the institutions of Western society.

    I have to note that, through all of this, I thought of therapy as therapy (with one goal) and Buddhism as Buddhism (with another, possibly more ambitious goal). Though my therapy used meditation practices from Buddhist traditions, it was not Buddhism and Buddhism was not a form of therapy, but something I pursued “extra-curricularly.” I am not sure I share the same political conclusions as you, but there are many arenas in which I feel our society is going the wrong way. “We’re lost, but we’re making good time,” as one observer put it. Therapy helped me reach a place where Buddhist practice was possible.

  23. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hi Ernst,

    Your post raises all the typical responses to the, admittedly, “unique” perspective I take (for many people, unique would not be the word they use).

    Your reaction assumes that the illness is produced by a malfunction in the individual, and so you assume that I am crediting her or him with some great insight into our social formation which she is rejecting; I am assuming that there is no “self” to have such insights, and so the sick individual is a product of the system without her necessarily knowing anything about it in any conscious way. You set up a “there is not third option” strategy, in which the individual either is saved by existing Buddhist practices or must be restored to “health” by therapy in order to then begin Buddhist practice. I would suggest it has never been the goal of Buddhist practice until now to restore mental “health,” and that the fact that there is no form of therapy currently existing that does not simply re-interpellate the subject means there is not option–you assume we cannot create one.

    I obviously don’t know anything about your specific case, but in the bare outline you give it sound exactly like you were restored to proper interpellation in capitalist ideology; in fact, your tendency to miss the point of my argument, to assume an autonomous self that I am insisting does not exist, is evidence of how very well your therapy worked. You are restored to financial security, family, peace of mind, and the conviction that therapy is thoroughly apolitical and the subject you have been made into is just natural and healthy, not constructed. This is why you can now see beliefs and assumptions about what counts as success as “ideologies,” but cannot see the very notion of depression, a subject, the importance of family, as ideologies–ideologies, from within capitalist ideology, are always false beliefs; from my “unique perspective” they are very real structures which are simply more or less desirable, not necessarily falsifiable.

    Someone emailed me with a similar response about the use of therapy for chronic pain, and many people have suggested I am using “too broad a brush.” Of course, treatment for physical problems must be separated out, but even excluding that, I think the assumption that this is too broad a brush can always be shown to be an instance of what you are assuming–that there are some therapies that restore us to “normal” functioning and so are not ideological. I am not making a “leap” to this conclusion–the steps from one point to the other have been demonstrated many many times by many others, although I have only referenced them and not rehearsed them here. Try reading books by Russell Jacoby, Ian Parker, Andrew Collier, Kurt Danziger (that’s just off the top of my head, there are others), and you’ll see that this argument about therapy has been made in some detail already.

    I think Buddhism can help to free us from our ideology, but only in a sense. That is, to borrow a metaphor from Kant, we should not be like the bird who, becoming aware of the resistance of the air thinks it would fly much better in a vacuum. Instead, we must become aware of the air and make the best use of it with whatever wings we have. The person you describe who is stuck in depressive ruminations can, in fact, be freed from depression without necessarily being re-interpellated into the dominant ideology. It would not be easy, and would require material resources most depressed people are not likely to have, however. I do speak from experience on this (I have no such confidence, of course, that people with illnesses that are neurologically caused could be helped without medical intervention).

    One way to think of this is that therapy helped you to get to a place where Buddhist practice is more materially possible, but much more intellectually difficult. Of course, it is always difficult, until it is easy.

    Thanks for your comments,

  24. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I also liked Sue Hamilton’s book–although it was summarily dismissed in the scholarly reviews I read of it, I thought it raised an interesting new way to approach Buddhism, and was brave enough to take a position that could be argued with. I found many of her arguments compelling, and it got be rethinking things. However, at one point she mentions her own inability to imagine that anyone could ever experientially know the concept of anatman. She sees this as impossible, but to me it doesn’t seem so strange at all–and I think this is why she downplays non-self. There is an obsession in western Buddhism with anatman, but I think it is often due to a need to reassure the western audience that anatman doesn’t really MEAN non-self, that it only means our superficial opinions and attachments, our bodies and things, aren’t our “self.” The obsession is a sort of self-reassurance, western teachers trying to convince themselves and their readers that they of course understand that they have no self, but deep down of course they really do.

    I think it is a matter of realizing that the subject is not “fed with a stream of norms” but just IS that stream of norms. And there is not self that can create a separate space to which to withdraw and “just look,” that space just is the discourse of Buddhism (and, perhaps, non-philosophy).

  25. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hello Tom,

    Mentioning Hamilton I wanted to say that there are very different interpretations possible about what the buddha meant. On another level, I would say, there are quite some arguments that it might be impossible to get a sense what kind of self atta was. One can make the case that it is impossible to see how personhood was in the time of the buddha. We have grown into a specific form of personhood since the renaissance which is already very different from that of the middle ages – how much more then are we apart from thinking in the way the greeks did, the hebrews, the hearers of Mr. Gautama? I have some arguments for this and although I don‘t go into this here that is the context in which Hamilton‘s opinion puts just one more piece of evidence in: we are simply unable to make anything else than more or less educated guesses about atta and anattā.

    But this in itself, the adaptability of this function of the homo sapiens, it‘s self-reflecting and being aware of being somehow, it‘s ability to grow into, to interact with and to built reciprocally very different socio-cultural habitats, is the thing itself. This might very well have been the insight of the Mr. Gautama: that self is fluid, ephemeral and adaptable and that the point is to be aware of this and not to absolutize just one contingent version. But as this isn‘t verifiable it does not matter. It is our own insight.

    This puts the emphasis much more on the problem to think change than to think of a thing changing.

    From this point of view, for me it is totally irrelevant what someone‘s opinion about the self is. With this the buddhists have it the wrong way: at first they say, „there is no self“ and then one should sit to actualize this until the no-self cannot sit any longer because it‘s legs are getting numb. Instead one has to go into some kind of practice just to see for once how oneself functions, of what oneself consists, how volitions, emotions, feelings etc. are triggered, how they come up and pass. One has to look for oneself.

    That is the point where it is necessary to pull the plug, to pull out. The „steady stream“ I mentioned is first and foremost the stream of the media. In this stream the subject nowadays is plugged in. One has to go unplugged. First subject and media have to be pulled apart. The media is after the awareness of the subject, awareness is hooked and the subject has to wean off from this dependency. One has to build the ability to go without. Then it is only the second step to see, perhaps, how oneself embodies certain norms, ideologies or however one names this. Then one is perhaps able to form the ability to use one‘s awareness as one pleases (media included) and not as one is habituated. This I would call real autonomy.

    In this stream of the media also all this glossy magazines fit in. Tricycle etc. with their meditation of the week, dharma-mumblings, the latest quarter-million-word-book about something which could be said in three words, all this bullshit like the latest meditation-app for the iPhone. This all reflects only their inability to go without, their compulsion to bring a steady stream of new toys to the well educated, well off believers of karma, reincarnation, multi-roshi-dalai-lama etc.

    To go without, to learn this, would make a lot of psychotherapists jobless. I am sure. But it also leaves buddhism empty. And in regard to the non-buddhistic project, when Glenn asks what is left if buddhism is shorn of all its transcendental representations, then the answer is: nothing.

  26. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    I put a post at the end of the thread. Somehow the fomating of wordpress is making every answer in the row more narrow…..

  27. Erick Avatar


    I’d appreciate it if you could clarify what techniques, practices or methods within the repertoire of Buddhism will assist in allowing us to distance us from our ideologies, or to even as you once put it ‘to step outside of our ideological construction’. And if you could also explain something of how exactly they do this, what sorts of transformations within perception, action or something else are produced by these techniques, practices or methods to allow this stepping back from or stepping outside of ideology. I can see how Buddhist techniques and practices facilitated a stepping back from the ideologies of his era, but how is it that they allow this with regard to ideological interpellation as a generic, universal process?

    Also, do you really think it is possible, as you stated, “to understand the full social and ideological construction and implication of every simple thing we do”? That seems quite frankly to me beyond the capacity of human consciousness. Every. Simple. Thing. We. Do. My lord, the simultaneity and buzzing of cognitive, affective and somatic activity within a single human at each sequential moment in time is quite frankly, from my perspective, beyond any individual’s ability to fully recognize and identify. After all there is such a things as subconscious and unconscious mental and somatic activity, and I don’t see how all of that could be rendered transparent to conscious perception, recognition and examination in the service of ideological critique.

  28. Tom Pepper Avatar


    To begin with, I want to say that I never want to suggest that there is a “technique” or “method” to achieve distantiation of ideology. This is something that can only be done with a great deal of thought, and thought specific to the particular ideological practice involved. I would avoid the language of “technologies,” so popular in fields like psychology and pedagogy today, which attempts to provide step-by-step instructions to accomplish what can really only be accomplished with a great deal of intellectual effort.

    And this, in fact, is my answer to your second question. I do absolutely believe we can fully understand all the social/ideological implications of every simple action, and doing this is exactly the practice of satipattahana, or what it could be if we got over obsessing with the bodily sensations and hoping to find bliss by avoiding thought. I did not mean to suggest that we could have this full awareness of every action at every moment of the day–at least, this would be far beyond MY mental capacity. However, in meditative practice, once the mind is trained and focused, and we have let go of attachments to our practices (at least temporarily) we can see the causes and conditions of these practices. Take any simple activity, like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. Now, I don’t mean to be “mindful” of the coffee as you drink it–that is simple enjoyment, and is fine to do but a very different thing–I mean to try to trace the source of every sensation you get from that action in meditation, while you aren’t drinking the coffee. Recall the historical, economic, and cultural processes that have produced this daily practice; recall the personal experiences and sensations that have made this enjoyable. The simple act of drinking your coffee is the karmic result of hundreds of years of imperialism, economic development, culturally produced and regulated attachment to mood and sensation altering substances, the cultural development of unnatural time-regulation requiring wakefulness according to the clock, a host of personal identifications and experiences. And drinking that coffee is a karmic act that reproduces the social formation making it possible.

    We can do this with any simple act, and with more complex acts (why do you “enjoy” that particular sitcom or movie or music?), and although we may not have that full awareness of every action in every moment, achieving the full awareness can make us somewhat more aware of the causes and effects of our momentary “enjoyment.”

    As for the question of unconscious, well, I don’t think it can be “rendered transparent” to perception, because it is not perceivable. I am very Lacanian on this matter, and I think of the unconscious as primarily existing in the structure of our thoughts AND practices, particularly in the gaps, absences and aporia those thoughts produce and are produced by. We can come to know our unconscious processes, but not “transparently perceive” them–usually we need another subject to interact with to do this (self-analysis is always limited). Uncovering the unconscious, both personal and social, is always an ideological critique–that is why it is so beneficial, and so very difficult. Almost nobody wants to see what is “in” our unconscious (or, perhaps better, the absence it enforces), because we are so very attached to the enjoyment it enables.

    If you try doing this with some simple activity, something you usually think of as “mindless,” NOT while you’re doing the activity, but as a meditative practice, perhaps you’ll see what I mean. Or, maybe not. It has worked for me.

  29. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hello Tom

    I come back to this thread because I am still puzzled about your use of certain Buddhist terms.

    We had an exchange at tricycle in the blog-post about „The Buddha didn‘t just believed in rebirth, he argued for it“. (1)

    There you say „I, also, am fully convinced of the reality of karma and rebirth“, „anyone interested in seeing reality correctly has a better chance of accepting the belief in karma“, „with those who reject karma, it may be better to give them a correct explanation“ and „once you see that karma is true, you simply cannot reject it“. This is all from one post and I asked a short question there what „seeing reality correctly“ might mean. Going through the thread again I cannot find any answer from you which would explain what you mean with karma and rebirth but it seems that you deem both concepts as essential to Buddhism. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    You speak of „suffering“ and the „end of suffering“, „attachment to the self“ or even „enlightenment“ etc. in this thread here and going through it again a cannot find an answer for my question what you mean with this terms. You say yourself in post 17 above, „as a realist, I tend to take the position that the terms we pick only need to be made clearer.“ – May I ask where you make them clearer?

    You say in the mentioned post, „I refuse to take the ’linguistic turn‘ and remain a staunch realist. I think that the Buddha of the Pali Canon was absolutely a realist, and if we simply understand certain terms in this way, […] then we can read Buddha as teaching practice for distantiating our own ideologies, without necessarily simply adopting another one.“ This sounds a bit like you do that what you refuse if we take into account that, in Glenn‘s words, „the protagonist“ we are speaking about is a „literary invention“. Couldn‘t it be that calling Buddha a realist is an anachronism?

    Perhaps I overlooked something but it seems to me that here is some need for clarification. I am really interested in this. Maybe I don‘t see what you mean as a realist with the truth of karma etc. or I entirely miss the point of the whole project here but I wonder how this can go on when Glenn on one side takes apart terms like „buddhism“, „buddhist“, „dharma“ (2) and so on while on the other side you speak of „the reality of karma and rebirth“? As I see it, these terms are subject to destruction in the same way as the examples Glenn gives in his recent post.

    I don‘t want to be tedious, it‘s just that, in my opinion, this needs to be clarified in the framework of Non-Buddhism.

    Yours, Matthias


  30. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hi Matthias,

    First, I want to point out that Glenn and I are not necessarily engaged in exactly the same project–he has simply been kind enough to indulge my thoughts on his blog. If what I says seems to contradict what he says, it very well may that we are talking about different things.

    I would agree with Glenn that Buddha is a literary creation to some extent; however, I do think that, as Richard Gombrich has argued, we can see the evidence of a single thinker underlying the sometimes chaotic collection that makes up the Pali Canon. It may be anachronistic to say that Buddhism was originally a realist philosophy, in that realism today is usually a term used to distinguish one’s position from the materialist-idealist problematic. However, in the sense that there is a mind-independent reality, and no supernatural forces or powers, I see Buddha as a realist. Also in the sense that there is no immortal “soul,” and that the individual “person” can neither be reduced to mechanistic determination nor seen as having a “free will.”

    I also agree that, if I don’t mean to just play “language games” with the postmodernists, and don’t want to produce ideology with so many Western Buddhists, I do need to further clarify my terms.

    Shall I start with “karma”? This is such a loaded term, and has so may ideological uses, that it is very important to clarify it. From a non-Buddhist perspective, the goal may be to deconstruct the manifold ideological purposes the term is called upon to serve. My approach is a bit different: to prevent those ideological uses by putting the term to a very different, critical, purpose.

    I will try to be brief here, without being too obscure–and you can always let me know when I need to clarify more.

    I understand karma as a kind of theory of ideology, one that has, to my knowledge, not exact cognate in Western thought. There are always at least two sense in which karma is used: the karma we “have,” that determines our present situation, and karma as an “intentional action.” Ideology, in the sense I am using it, refers to the beliefs/ideas/values and their concomitant practices which serve to re-produce the relations to the relations of production. That is, they function to guide actions within a given mode of production such that things get done, people get fed, and the culture and economic system gets re-produced (both replicated and re-fashioned to accommodate technological and environmental change). Karma, as a theory of ideology, is the theory of how our capacity to act is a product of past ideological formations (we are the bearers of structures) and also to explain how our new “intentional” acts, acts taken within a belief system, will reproduce that structure, for ourselves and for its future “bearers.”

    Unlike theories of ideology in which it is “false consciousness,” in the theory of karma our actions are not (necessarily) falsifiable in this way. And unlike the common reading of Althusser’s theory of ideology, there is the possibility for a subject that is not acting within an ideology. When Buddha describes  sati, he says it includes being aware of all the causes and all the effects an action will have–and it is this knowledge that will free us from karma. If we know the function of our actions in re-producing the relations to the relations of production, we can decide rationally what kind of such relations (both “relations to” and “relations of”)are best to build, and which should be abandoned.

    This is how I understand karma–there is no magical retribution for evil deeds, because karma follows natural laws and there is no deep and abiding “self” to receive such retribution. If we do unskillful things, we produce a world with more suffering, and if we do skillful things we produce a world with less suffering. Beings suffer when they cannot fulfill their conatus, to use a Spinozist term. To end suffering, we need to remove those socially (karmically) produced obstructions to the fulfillment of our conatus.

    To give a concrete example: it is my karma to be an individual from a working-class family who became highly educated. This is my karma, in that it results from the peculiar position of the working class in the half-century after WW II, who often had enough money and job security to allow their children an education, and the need for a greatly expanded educational system to train worker in the much more technologically complex jobs in the American economy. As a result, I moved from hanging drywall to getting a PhD, and now teach Literature classes. It is also my karma that due to my working class background I am limited in the kinds of teaching positions I can be hired for, and so I teach students who, like myself, are often the first in their families to go to college. This is part of my karma, the structure and situation into which I was born, which I inherited because of the ideological actions of many generations of others–to use Heidegger’s term, into which I was “thrown.”

    Now, I can act ideologically, and serve my function of reproducing the relations of production which produced me. I can teach the proper skills, attitudes, and values, to produce another generation of lower-level cubicle dwellers and educators of the proletarianized white collar workforce. Or, I can use my situation to disturb the blind re-production of this relation to the relation of production: I can force students to question the ideological power of “Literature” to shape their enjoyments, values, and thoughts.

    So yes, I do think karma is an important concept in Buddhism, and that correctly understood it is not some mystical, magical, or ideological nonsense. It is important because it is a unique understanding of our potential, through practice, to liberate ourselves from our deeply internalized ideological beliefs/practices. All the other concepts, like “enlightenment/awakening” and “rebirth” follow from this idea of karma. We can understand “rebirth” only if we understand that the subject is not a soul, but the effect of a (karmically produced) structure. Not impacted or influenced by a structure: NOTHING BUT an effect of structures. Our karmic actions produce a tendency, a disposition, for a particular kind of subject position to occur in the structure we are re-producing. Rebirth is the reproduction of our subject position, and this is why, in the Pali canon, an end of rebirth is desirable. I don’t know if this is too obscure at this point–I’m trying to discuss Buddhist thought in contemporary philosophical terms, exactly to avoid the “charism” Glenn speaks of, but I’m still struggling to do it in an accessible way.

    I’m sure many people would say I’m completely wrong about karma–but take a look at the Pali canon. I have yet to find a single mention of karma that could not be explained, with no forcing at all, in the terms I am using. Which brings up one more point: I am not particularly attached to the terms, really. I just think that the original term “karma” is the best way to refer to the original theory of ideology that it represents.

    Does this help clear anything up? If not, and if you’re interested, just keep asking questions and I’ll try to be as perspicuous as my muddled blue-collar brain can manage!

    Good to hear from you,

  31. Will Yaryan Avatar

    Great stuff, Tom. I hope to read more of your postmodernist take on early Buddhism. Thanks.

  32. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hello Tom

    Thanks a lot for this clarification. It goes far in explaining „karma“ and makes your thinking very clear and also it is a very plausible way to put the term to use. Also it seems to me that there are some not so unimportant political implications of how the term you put to work.

    I think I understand the first of the two paragraphs where you define the term but with the second I have some difficulties.

    As Glenn says in his introduction to your text: „ideological formation is unavoidable: there can be no “ideology-free” individual“

    But then, what is it what you mean with „there is the possibility for a subject that is not acting within an ideology“? Does this mean „being aware of all the causes and all the effects an action“? Isn‘t this simply impossible? As I understand it the subject is under the impression of being free while in reality being under control of ideology. How would the act of becoming aware of the relations be?

    Maybe the questions are confuse. My karma is that I come to ,philosophy‘ only since a short time. I even have to go back to Kant to get a bearing on non-Philosophy. Life can be very interesting.

    Thanks, Matthias

  33. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Good question, Matthias–this is clearly a point where I’m using the term in a rather careless and imprecise way. There is a sense in which there is not “ideology-free” individual, unless there is an individual who is completely outside of any social system. Our actions always involve intents and beliefs, and are always in relation to a social system. In that paragraph, it would have been more precise to say that there can be a subject who does not re-produce the existing social system. That subject would still have a relation to the social system, but a negative one–either resisting or transforming it. So, there is still an ideology, just an ideology that we know is one and that we have chosen to produce from within some theory of ideology, in this case the theory of karma. The subject is, usually, under the impression of being free while she is in an ideology, but as Althusser says in the ISA essay, for a marxist or a spinozist it is possible to know her ideology is ideological.

    There is also the sense in which a subject, in the sense that Badiou theorizes the subject, can be exactly somebody who is not within ideology at all, because she operates within a truth that is beyond the present limits of what counts as knowable–but that’s a whole different matter.

    Why would you say that it is simply impossible to know all the causes and conditions of an action? What exactly is impossible about it? Do you mean that there are aleatory effects beyond the realm of our present knowledge of causes? Or that we cannot “know” and “do” at the same time? I have heard the claim of “impossibility” used in both of these ways; I would agree with the first, but not the second. Only a fully enlightened being knows ALL the causes and effects; the rest of us just have to hope we know all the consequential ones.

  34. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Tom, my thinking about the impossibility has to do with the first of the two ways you mention – the aleatory effects. As a participant in financial markets for a long time I have a reflex against every absolute knowledge – a knowledge about an event in the future, t+1, with the probability value 1. This would mean I know the price of an asset at t+1 (lets say in one year) with 100% precision.

    This leads to a contradiction because ,the market‘ with its inbuilt and essential mechanism of finding inefficiencies would a) detect this possibility/inefficiency and would b) put to work its arbitrage mechanism to exploit it. This would lead necessarily to the event occurring earlier then anticipated, t+x with x<1, whereby the event at t+1 negates itself. At least this would lead to an infinite regress with the event approaching the limes t0.

    In reality one only ever has a confidence interval in which the price at t+1 will occur. For example the Euro-Dollar rate in one year will be, with 65% probability, roughly 32% above or below where it is today. Based on the rates, which are actual trades or acts, of the last 30 days.

    With the last said one sees that at t0 an event from the social sphere changes its status through the trade one does, into a discrete element which is statistically accountable. From t0 backwards in time I buy Dollar against Euro, I come to the decision to do so, I did research which lead to the decision, I educated myself to do the research etc. These instances at t-x are no discrete elements, they are events which build a flow in the social sphere and they cannot be indexed.

    The general conclusion, not only for financial markets, is that on both sides of t0, the act, I find the impossibility of being 100% correct. Neither can I calculate the outcome, so I can never know all consequences, nor can I, on the way to a to be given act, see all causes or conditions because I cannot index them.

    Now, what would a fully enlightened being do? It looks like that it is impossible to think this through because for this I would have to be one. Conclusion, we cannot think this. But we can turn the question around: is there an enlightened being in the Buddhist sense, knowing all causes and all effects, anyway? Tradition says „yes, of course!“ – but I don‘t think so.

    The overarching goal of all Buddhism is to end all suffering. A being knowing all causes and all effects is therefore obliged to act in a way that will bring enlightenment, i.e. the end of suffering, to another being. The latter then must act in the same way. What ensues is an exponential increasing number of beings causing the end of suffering of the unenlightened. As the latter is a finite quantity, suffering beings = 0 at t+x. Therefore we can proof wrong the theory of the existence of an enlightened being if there is no enlightenment in a finite amount of time. As an enlightened being knows all effects it should know how to cause enlightenment in an unenlightened being in the shortest possible amount of time, which should be at the limes of now. From this follows the enlightenment of all beings should have already occurred or should occur in the next moment, if it does not, the existence of an enlightened being is refuted 😉

    So the impossibility to know all causes and effects is certain and with no end to suffering, because there is obviously, no enlightened being we are left with the only possibility – that is to act. There I think might come in your second point, to „know“ and to „do“ at the same time. I think that is not impossible. Although I would say here we still act in uncertainty. I don‘t know what you exactly mean with to know and to do at the same time? The flow of interaction is regarded as the flow of discrete entities, put to work by entities who imagine themselves as discrete but with the flow it is about thinking change and not about thinking a thing changing. Or otherwise said, the thinking about the subject might be built on an altogether wrong ideology. Namely that the consciousness of the subject stems at first from an individual ape who realized that he is. Much evidence is emerging that consciousness might stem from interaction. As such it is not a single entity but the ongoing flow of exchange between members of a community. The irritation about consciousness and its inability to come to term with its finiteness comes from the wrong cultural adaption, via the genesis of a language in the widest sense of the word, of its auto-awareness as an autonomous entity in the sense of the independence from the other. Where „the other“ and my enclosure in myself might be grounded in the decisional dyad.

    I am absolutely not sure about this. But uncertainty for me is a given and it even is for me the main force of any development. There must be a kind of practice for this which consists in a certain form of communication or conversation which is grounded in to know and to do at the same time with uncertainty as the creative pole. Take the end of the film Rashomon for example. After everybody told totally different and contradictory accounts of an event which non the less happened for sure and everybody seems at the point of despair because of living in a universe which is not only filled with forces which kill one without even recognizing ,you‘ but which also gives readily out examples about its own incompatibility with any lasting meaning, then comes the moment when the act is forced upon the protagonists. They can either leave or they can take on responsibility. They may have reasons for either way, but they act. That is certain.

    Excuse me for being hopelessly obscure at last. Perhaps „the end of suffering“ must be reinterpreted. It cannot be equal to the end of uncertainty – in my opinion. To become conscious about or in ones ideology must be a (first) step. This must have profound consequences for the interaction because the self or subject becomes aware of its constructedness. Not knowing this, is this suffering? Isn‘t this ideology in the sense you use it, construction? Then this would also be the answer to the illness of absolute relativity: because ideology and its constructive activity is always acting within a social, interactional framework where there never could be action without any reference to a situation. The situation is meaningful. This does not allow for any action. The art of action would be to become spontaneous, fluid, conscious, open, relevant and decisive… in the flow of interaction.

    I stop here, this is getting out of control. I hear Vijay Iyer‘s „Historicity“. This guy at the piano is what a mean. I think the part of knowing and doing might be of great importance for this whole project.

  35. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hi Matthias,

    Just a couple quick points here. First, I would maintain that there is a distinction between knowing the causes and effects, and making 100% accurate predictions. We may know that certain causal powers exist, but these powers are not causes until they are exercised. There is a difference between explanatory power and predictive power; a failure to accept that the former may actually be a kind of “scientific” knowledge is what reduces the positivist notion of science to probabalistic instrumentalism.

    Secondly, there may never be an endpoint, a “full” knowledge. That is, the possibility that human knowledge is infinitely corrigible does not preclude the existence of enlightenment. We could always think of enlightenment as analogous to Spinoza’s idea of Joy: the increase of knowledge of, and ability to act in, the world. “Increase” is the key point here–the enlightened being would be in the process of endlessly increasing awareness and interactive powers.

    Related to this, I would contend that there cannot be any “fully” enlightened individual, and no individual can even be enlightened in this (sort-of)Spinozist sense unless ALL beings are engaged in this process–albeit to greater or lesser degrees.

  36. Meditation and Control « Der Unbuddhist Avatar

    […] needs to be read and criticized today via a text like Metzinger‘s and I bet all my good karma (as defined by Tom Pepper) that Longchenpa was a man who would have said the same. With reference to the second […]

  37. leon bertraam Avatar
    leon bertraam

    I am not sure where to begin… for all of your claims that Buddhism shouldn’t be adapted to suit 1 particular agenda, or subverted in service of societal structures, your assumption is that buddhism is inherently radical or seeks active de construction of social experiences or structures. Worse yet, Because your agenda is already set, your assumptions about buddhism’s role in service to ameliorating suffering is over reaching.

    Buddhism does not make a whore of happiness , or social justice, or compassion. Buddhism’s moral ethos of compassion in conjunction with the 8 fold path is adaptive to the extent that its uses always varies with the individual and his society.

    Coming at the problem from a materialist and western standpoint brings with it all sorts of assumptions. Such as that emptiness inheres deconstruction of socio economic relationships. Openness and an abiding sense of interconnected experience is the result , a personal disentangling of reactions to all extrinsic stimuli. This brings with it the end of further reification of self being the product of its environment. this is the freedom proffered through buddhism , with the manifold jhanas availing themselves as input buffers from samsaric stressors.

    What is buddhism gives the individual in society is the capacity to follow a moderate path first and foremost. The compassionate path is reinforced by the othering of self , the insight of the fungible personal experience and identity.

    This makes buddhism and it’s votaries

  38. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE #37: You have exactly proven my central claim in this and every other essay here: you can only assume the “individual in society” who “follow[s] a moderate path” does NOT have an “agenda” but is acting naturally, with no assumptions or ideology. I do NOT claim that Buddhism should not have an agenda–I merely claim that we should KNOW it IS an agenda, and know that it is NOT a natural non-ideological truth. My concern is to overcome exactly the kind of ignorance you demonstrate so clearly.

  39. leon bertram Avatar
    leon bertram

    Buddhism instructs about meta-cognising at all levels including its own. Metacognition is inherently natural And buddhism formalizes the process of discovery. Likewise the jhanas are organic to the experience of essence and suchness. It’s all that simple.

    Essence and flux are simply ideologically free, everyone is able to enter and experience them. All dharma’s are equal including suffering, you cannot claim 1 is more equal than the other.

    It’s all process and no goal. To generate ideologies would be to engage in proliferation of forms which inheres yet more artefacts of self.

    In the agency of volition We find the paradox of driving ourselves before the principle of eliminating the drive to drive our selves.

    Whats we understand the leveling and fungible nature of self and mind we become open to experience. Our insubstantial goals dissolve and what is left is still substantial must be recognized as fundamental. Hence the first noble truth… existence is inherently dis satisfactory … but existence and causality are inherently broken.

    The middle way is to avoid those thickets of views come on down to seize the constant chain of reaction whereby we internalize extrinsic samsaric dharmas.

    This invites compassion. But it doesn’t mandate social justice or changing society.

  40. leon bertram Avatar
    leon bertram

    What I am driving at in the roundabout way is that we cant caricature buddhism as a dangerous tool of unlearning… dangerous that is, in the sense, of powerful. Yes buddhism offers the opportunity to deconstruct And abandon all prior assumptions. But then so does too cognitive behavior therapy as part of the process of meta-cognition which you seem to have conveniently ignored a similar caricature of modern psychology.

    Nor does buddhism eschew adjustment or advise to completely go off the grid. It seems that we are arguing more about how to adopt buddhism to the west and who has foisted or framed a dialectic about its role.

    Look at the stinking morass of fundamentalism in south east asian buddhism and you can see that buddhism can be hijacked just is terribly into societal control and hierarchy as anny human system

  41. Tom Pepper Avatar

    RE #40: “buddhism can be hijacked just is terribly into societal control and hierarchy as anny human system”

    Yes, this is exactly the point I have been making over and over–as have many others on this blog. The goal is to avoid this.

    If you are so naive that you could possibly consider the goal of cbt to be anything at all other than the production of properly functioning, deluded capitalist subjects who are thoroughly lacking in social-awareness AND self-awareness, then I don’t doubt that you were bothered by my essay, and surely could not have understood it.

    You can spout all the x-buddhistic crap you want about “internalizing dharmas” and paradox and eliminating desires–but it is just a lot of superficial nonsense.

    Buddhism has always, since Buddha, been involved in the political system–it has always suggested ways to change society. Until, that is, it became the postmodern pseudo-religion of the west. The silly idea that “real” Buddhism is not political would rule out Buddha as a “real” Buddhist–and almost every Buddhist who has ever lived. Quite an claim to make–only we Western capitalists really understand Buddhism, Buddha and all those easterners got it all wrong.

  42. leon bertram Avatar
    leon bertram

    I’m certain you’re quite positive of all your conclusions. Weather your opinions will have any impact or not I can’t say. Judging from your presentation and approach probably not.

  43. […] Sick Progeny? Buddhism and Psychotherapy […]

  44. Jon Hook Avatar
    Jon Hook

    I encountered this article two years ago as a psychology phd student. It set me off on journey of interrogating psychotherapy and psychology as a whole. I am as grateful to it’s thought-provoking criticisms as I am to it’s numerous errors and unsubstantiated claims. All have furnished me into a much more learned and radical behaviorist. I post this as a matter of historical record.

  45. Tom Pepper Avatar
    Tom Pepper

    Rereading this essay from over a decade ago, what it says seems so obvious to me it is almost embarrassing that I bothered to say it. I suppose I was so immersed in the discipline of psychology at the time, being a graduate student, that I was stunned there seemed to be so many people unaware of such ordinary and obvious truths. Then, seeing the recent comment on the essay (above) I am reminded of the shocking level of stupidity among psychology graduate students (typically the lowest overall IQ of any graduate program except education). I spent far too many years trying to teach pigs to sing, I guess. Responses like the ones to this essay are largely why I’ve giving up trying to write anything about Buddhism.

  46. Jon Hook Avatar
    Jon Hook

    Dear Tom (may I call you Dr. Pepper?),

    I honestly didn’t expect you to give the game away so quickly. I certainly did not expect you to wield the notoriously racist bourgeois tool of the “Intelligence Quotient” in your schoolyard gainsay. But then maybe you meant it in an ideologically neutral sorta way?

    Since this is your space I’ll give you the last word. I am, after all,

    your Comrade,

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