Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism

Speculative non-Buddhism suspects Buddhism of avoiding the labor of hard thought. The previous post addressed this issue directly: a Buddhist teacher invoked the unsentimental demands that historical analysis makes on tradition; but she left undone the hard work of thinking through the implications of those demands. Thinking through—i.e., permitting thought to take its potentially destructive course—necessarily unsettles the matter at hand. Yet, somehow, whenever Buddhists think, Buddhism remains unscathed.

Why is that? Why allow the intellect to do only so much work, and then show it the door? X-Buddhists of all varieties invoke the sciences and humanities as allies in their search for knowledge—only to retreat back into the sureness of doctrine and, as Tom Pepper puts it, “down into the thought-free depths of the body.” Why? One reason: anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism? Consider this statement by a figure who has exerted an exorbitant influence on the shape of Buddhism—and not just Zen—in the modern West:

“Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis;” sutras are “mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more” (D.T. Suzuki, in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 8-9).

In this post, I present to you an essay by Tom Pepper that explores the nature of this tendency of contemporary western Buddhists to “reject the demands of rigorous thought.” From the perspective of Speculative non-Buddhism, Pepper’s essay is a valuable instance of escorting Buddhism to the Great Feast of Knowledge.

–Glenn Wallis

On Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism and the Limits of Conceptual Thought

By Tom Pepper

For several years now I have been puzzled, sometimes troubled, by the determined and occasionally virulent anti-intellectualism of Western Buddhism. The pervasive hostility to philosophical thought, at Buddhist retreats, in popular Buddhist books and magazines, and sometimes even in scholarly works, is particularly puzzling in light of the long tradition of sophisticated and rigorous Buddhist philosophy. In the last couple thousand years, there has been enormous intellectual work in many different schools of Buddhism, but American Buddhists are adamant that any such efforts be labeled “clinging to views” or “ego.” Why, I have often wondered, adopt Buddhism at all if one is so opposed to rigorous thought? Of course, there are some easy answers about the myth of the exotic east and spiritual snobbery; however, I have come to think that there is a more subtle, and less dismissive, answer to this puzzle. Perhaps instead of just putting this down to the general American stupidity, we can explore why this anti-intellectualism is so compelling, and what, exactly, is so terribly anxiety-producing about thought?

I will briefly adumbrate my conclusion here, although it will likely be unconvincing at this point: I would suggest that the particular kind of anti-intellectualism found among Buddhists (who are often more educated and intelligent than average) is a reaction to the desolate landscape of post-modern thought; it is, I will suggest, not the only possible reaction, and there is another alternative, which I think is more in line with the history of Buddhist thought.  That alternative is not a retreat from thought into pure experience, but the willingness to think our way out of this bleak intellectual wasteland.  In short, while many Buddhists have been trying to escape the trap of post-modernity by retreating down into the thought-free depths of the body, a more useful (and, I will argue, more Buddhist) response is to escape up, into the limits of philosophical rigor.

To begin, I want to delineate the particular kind of anti-intellectualism that has permeated popular forms of Western Buddhism.  Now, in mentioning only a handful of Buddhist teachers, I don’t want to suggest that they are solely responsible for this anti-intellectualism, or that this represents the entire function of their work as a whole. I am simply picking a few examples, to clarify the kind of resistance to thought I see as being most prevalent; these example are certainly not exhaustive, nor are they the entire story of Western Buddhism. There are some Buddhist thinkers today (I will mention only a few of them, as well) who are very explicitly not in the anti-intellectual camp. My goal here is simply to account for one reason why anti-intellectualism is so popular a position for a group of people who are, more often than not, well-educated, intelligent, and politically progressive—all descriptors with which the term “anti-intellectual” would not seem to pair well.

I have often heard it suggested that the suspicion of thought results from the influence of Zen being the first form of Buddhism widely introduced to Western audiences. I wonder, however, if it might have been the other way around—that Zen was attractive because it is so easy to portray it as eschewing thought. In fact, it is also possible to see the practice of koans as exactly demanding that the practitioner take his conceptual framework to the limits and transcend it, not escaping to pure thoughtless sensation but advancing the possibilities of thought.  I’ll come back to this suggestion later. For now, I want to start with some popular presentations of Zen, and their rejection of conceptual or philosophical thought.

D.T. Suzuki, in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, declared that “Zen has nothing to teach us in the way of intellectual analysis,” and that the sutras are “mere waste paper whose utility consist in wiping off the dirt of the intellect and nothing more” (8-9). The goal is “absolute peace of mind,” and this is only attained by eliminating the “reasoning faculty,” which only “hinders the mind from coming into the directest communication with itself” (14). We must seek a state in which we eliminate logic and even words from our minds, and live in direct, sensory experience, understood to be the deepest truth. On this understanding, our senses are a pure apprehension of a primal reality, which have been screened from us by thought; now, I’ll set aside critiquing this position for the time being, and simply note that it would strike most philosophers today, and I believe many Buddhists throughout history, as startlingly naive to think that our sense perceptions aren’t always already structured by culture and language.

More recently, Thich Nhat Hanh has followed a similar approach. One could almost open any of his books and find a statement about the futility of thought, or the vanity of “philosophy,” or a statement that true enlightenment is full enjoyment of a cup of tea or the beauty of a flower. We must never examine the history of imperialism that is the condition of our enjoying this cup of tea, or the cultural privileging of the temporary, of the extravagant ability to devote resources to the useless, which are the cause of our pleasure in the flower.  That would be thought, and so delusion: enlightenment is just insisting that the culturally produced experiences we enjoy the most are a contact with the timeless reality of “interbeing.”  In Understanding Our Mind, perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh’s most explicitly anti-intellectual book, he explains that in the first stage of the bodhisattva path, the bodhisattva must remove the “obstacles of knowledge and affliction,” and then “experience” reality directly as a “state of being refreshed”(117). Note that these are not obstacles to knowledge—knowledge itself is the obstacle to experiencing reality: “Before ideation, before the mind begins to construct, the mind touches the ultimate dimension, the realm of suchness” (128). The only way back to this mystical suchness is eliminating thought and fully enjoying our sensory present.

It is not only the Zen Buddhists in the West who have embraced this belief in an experiential truth to be found beneath the layers of conceptual thought. Stephen Batchelor is but one example of a Buddhist trained in the Tibetan tradition who has become quite popular by teaching this understanding of Buddhism. Nearly thirty years ago, in his book Alone With Others, he presented his “existential approach to Buddhism” as a rejection of the Mahayana “preoccupation with speculative metaphysics” (125), which led,  in his view, to a neglect of the “existential experience,” which is alone what can lead us to see through the attachments produced in reaction to our primal anxiety in the face of emptiness.  In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, he explains how he became dissatisfied with his Buddhist teachers once he discovered Heidegger, as a reaction to the abstraction of philosophical thought: “Heidegger believed that the entire project of Western thought that began with Plato had come to an end.  It was necessary to start all over again, to embark on a new way of thinking, which he called besinnliches Denken: contemplative thinking” (51). This “contemplative thinking,” according to a common reading of Heidegger which Batchelor seems to have accepted, is a form of access to the autochthonous, the primitive and primal experience before rational and scientific thought separated us from this deep reality, and is, for Heidegger, accessible in the authentic purity of the true German language, and in the timeless greatness of the true German poets. The alienation of modernity is seen as the result, not of capitalism, industrialism, fascism, but of too much abstract thought and too much scientific progress.  The return to the primitive experience of Dasein can restore us to “authenticity.” Among self-styled “secular Buddhists,” this justification for rejecting the demands of rigorous thought seems to be very appealing; it might be worth remembering where it led Heidegger.

In the period between the two World Wars, in the great capitalist crisis of the twentieth century, when the bourgeoisie was stuck in its attempt to throw off the yoke of the ancien régime without accidentally launching a world-wide communist revolution, this Heideggerian retreat from thought perhaps makes some sense. Modernity was sapping the meaning from the world, and it was either make a bid for the imaginary plenitude of Dasein while sitting on a cushion, or goose-step in line. Or, of course, to do the unthinkable: turn Red.  In our time, the meaninglessness of the world is supplemented by the meaninglessness of thought, with philosophy reduced to a post-modern language game. Accepting the radical division between the meaningless material world accessible to science and the thoroughly relativist world of humanity which no scientific thought can reach, a view most commonly going by the name of Rorty, the postmodern world is left with only two choices: accept the absolute reduction of all human experience to the working of the neurons in the brain, or retreat into a mystical ideal of pure experience, with the (misguided) belief that we can access perceptions that are not tainted by the world of language and conceptual thought.  Thought becomes “fixed views” or “intellectualizing” because in the present tyranny of absolute freedom of opinion, no position can be argued for; to make an argument is to deny that all opinions are equally valid in the purely relativist world of human thought.  In this extreme relativism, we have reached the absurd state in which at least one popular Buddhist teacher, with the proper credentials of years spent in the exotic East, can quite seriously suggest that we could even walk up wall if we just believed that we could!

The anti-intellectualism is perhaps understandable, then, as a retreat from the arrant nonsense of so much popular postmodernism. One way of understanding the history of philosophy is as a series of containments of radicalism. There is a sense in which Kantian transcendental idealism contains the radical potential of the enlightenment, and a sense in which Hiedeggerian phenomenology contains the radical potential of Neitzsche, Marx and Freud, and today the postmodern “linguistic turn” can contain any potential for radical thought by simply insisting that all thought is a language game that constructs the reality it purports to describe. In the current state of Western culture, it is perhaps understandable that when people are dissatisfied, when they have a felt sense that there are things excluded, left unthinkable in the language games of philosophy and the tyranny of free opinion, they look to find that excluded something in an experience that they are told is “purified” of all thought, a return to the primal unity with “suchness.” That they don’t find it there is perhaps the reason that so many Western Buddhists move on, after a year or two, to the next New Age fad.

There is however, an alternative to this defeat of thought.  And, what is most important, it is one that is more compatible with the history of Buddhist philosophy than the attempt to retreat into mindless experience of a cup of tea or a flower. For if Buddhism has always insisted on the limitations of conceptual thought, it has also always insisted that our experience is never free of those very same limitations. Every gut-level intuition is shot through with the structure of ideology; our very sensory perceptions are active structuring of the world, not passive reception of stimuli. When we stop thinking, we do not escape ideology, but become fully enslaved by it at the level of the body.

We can seek the limitations of thought not by sinking down into the realm of the purely physical, but by accepting the challenge of rigorous thought. In the words of Alain Badiou:

in order to think, always take as your starting point the restrictive exception of truths and not the freedom of opinion. This is a worker’s principle in the sense that thought is here a matter of labour and not of self-expression. Process, production, constraint and discipline are what it seeks; not nonchalant consent to what a world proposes. (25)

Badiou is only one example, but I think a very good one, of what thought could do if we accept realism, instead of either a relativist idealism in which consciousness creates the world or a reductive materialism in which thought becomes a useless epiphenomenon. For Badiou, as I understand him, there is a truth external to anything we may think, a reality which is true whether we know of it or not—Badiou makes a distinction, then, between truth and knowledge. Our thought will always run up against the limits of what our conceptual system cannot include, what is unthinkable. This aporia produces the potential for rigorous thought, for the insistence on including what we can think as true but which cannot be proven or formalized in any existing paradigm of knowledge. And it is in this excess of truth over knowledge that the subject arises, as the embodiment of an idea that is produced by the network of causes and conditions having pushed the current paradigm of thought to its limits; it is not the subject, as individual genius, that produces the idea, but the new idea that produces a subject. Badiou’s term for this is “ideation:” “that which, in the individual undergoing incorporation within the process of a truth, is responsible for binding together the component of this trajectory… it is that through which a human life is universalized” (115-116). For Badiou, thought does not endlessly reach the same inevitable impasse, because the subject is not an autonomous, atomistic self in dualistic relation to an objective world; instead, the subject is purely an effect of a structure, of a set of discourses and knowledge practices that are an endless dialectical process of excess and containment. This structure is not fixed and limited, but can endlessly gain more and better knowledge, can endlessly decrease the realm of what must be excluded from the symbolic order.

It can do so, for Badiou, because of his theory of the subject—a theory that has interesting affinities with the Buddhist concept of anatman. The subject is not to be located in the concrete individual, but in the socially produced structure that individual inhabits. As a result, the true subject, like the Bodhisattva, cannot reach full enlightenment until all sentient beings do—until the entire conceptual system does. Moreover, this is not even a matter of choice: we could not choose to ignore the symbolic network which constructs us, and leave the rest of humanity behind in the dust of ignorance, because we are all part of the same network of thought. We must (on my understanding of Badiou) insist on a transformation of the existing state of Being, and extension of the existing limits to the possibility of thought, because no individual subject can increase its freedom unless the entire network of thought transforms—because no individual subject exists, only the structure of which it is an effect is real, in the sense of having causal powers.

To try to clarify this, let’s consider Zizek’s critique of Badiou. Zizek argues, following Lacan, that “the ultimate authentic experience” is “nothing more than that of fully confronting the fundamental impasse of the symbolic order” (171). There is always, for Lacan, an aporia in language and thought, a “leftover of the Real,” which can be confronted, but never overcome—any attempt to change the symbolic system to include this obscene and terrifying leftover simply shifts it to another location. For Zizek, Badiou is stuck in his inability to recognize that this traumatic kernel of the Real will always exist, and must be accepted, never subsumed. However, in Badiou’s theory of the subject, the Lacanian leftover of the Real can be increasingly subsumed, because the subject is ultimately not an atomistic individual separated by an unbridgeable gap from the noumenal, and so endlessly coming up against the exact same (biological/natural) limit of thought. The a priori (for Badiou, mathematical) truth that the subject already contains is not in the “transcendental” mind, but is in the socially constructed symbolic system itself; and because it is socially constructed, the content of a priori knowledge can expand.  To use a mathematical example, then, Fermat’s last theorem was not finally proven because of one genius’s ability, but because the a priori content of the entire structure producing subjects has undergone profound expansion and transformation. We can transcend the limits of thought, but not by some force of individual intellectual genius; instead, it is the participation in a socially constructed practice of demanding, rigorous thought that can take us beyond the Lacanian terror of the Real.

To return, then, to the world of Buddhism: I would like to simply suggest that there is a long tradition in Buddhism of attempting to transcend thought in this way. That enlightenment demands that we pursue thought to its (upward) limits is at least one possible reading of Nagarjuna.  Instead of seeing Nagarjuna as a sophist, as Richard Hayes does, who conflates two meanings of the term svabhava and so produces an illogical argument, we can see him as a thinker who pushes to the limit the conceptual network of his time, a conceptual system in which it is not yet possible to think the distinctions between the two meanings of svabhava that Hayes argues are conflated (“identity” and “causal independence”). We can see Nagarjuna as a philosopher who, in the words of Jay Garfield and Graham Priest, “does not try to avoid the contradiction at the limit of thought” (4), and whose “extirpation of the myth of the deep” may turn out to be his “greatest contribution to Western philosophy” (16).  Similarly, on one way of understanding Vasubandhu’s Yogacarin thought, what is most important is that it is not a form of idealism in which the mind creates reality, but an attempt to understand the causes and conditions of the mind itself. As Dan Lusthaus puts it, for Yogacara “mind is not the solution but the problem,” and every attempt to escape consciousness is itself “nothing but a projection of consciousness” (5-6). Vasubandhu’s way of practicing Buddhism is to discover, in rigorous philosophical thought, in what way and to what ends our mind produces phenomena from an actually existing reality external to it. Like  Spinoza (but unlike many phenomenologists) the Yogacarins believed this knowledge was obtainable, and could enable better and more complete ideas of reality. In Spinozist terms, we are only as free as our ideas of reality are correct and complete; if our ideas are inherently incomplete, we can only pursue liberation if we pursue liberation of all sentient beings—because each individual subject is no more than an effect of the entirety of sentience

My argument, then, is that Western Buddhist anti-intellectualism is perhaps understandable, given the current state of the situation.  If thought demands of us hard work, a kind of faithful labor, but we are constantly told that there is no point in it because there is no “correct” thought, there is just the majority opinion, well, then of course we may be reluctant to put in the effort. This rejection of the rigors of thought has not been the response of Buddhism for most of its history, and is not the only possible response to the dismal failure of Western intellectual activity. If we find that the work of intellectuals is beating a reactionary retreat at a time of crisis, and giving us no help at all, we don’t need to return to our teacups and flower gardens. We can find what the present limits of thought leaves as unthinkable, not in our pure experience, but in thinking the limits of emptiness.

This need not be as terrifying as many Western Buddhists might think.  It does not necessarily mean that Buddhism would be reserved for those with the greatest capacity for abstract or philosophical thought. Anyone can make the attempt to transcend the limits of their own conceptual framework. Indeed, until everyone does, there will be no single subject capable of moving forward beyond an outer limit, because every subject is an effect of the structure of all subject positions. To put this somewhat more concretely, when the calculus was discovered, very few could grasp it; to reach the stage at which the subject had sufficient a priori knowledge for Fermat’s last theorem to be solved, we had to reach the stage at which an understanding of calculus could be expected of school children. For any of us to make progress toward awakening, the entire structure which produces our subjective “mind” must move beyond the current limitations of conceptual thought. There is no elite, there is only a structure, so there is no value in leaving anybody behind. In what is perhaps one of the most radical transformations of Buddhism in its history, Shinran Shonin brought Buddhism to the uneducated masses. His method, as explained by Dennis Hirota in his book Asura’s Harp, was to meet his students where they were: “For Shinran truth might be characterized as a fundamental shift in stance, a transformative event in which the self is dislodged from an absolute standpoint and made aware of its conditionedness” (63). By his strategy in responding to questions, Shinran attempted to have his followers realize the social construction and conceptual limits of their thought, to open up the possibility of a greater understanding of Truth that exceeds present forms of knowledge. Shinran’s movement was, of course, first forbidden and then contained, eventually transformed into a worship of the Japanese state. But for that moment, in the transition from the Heian to the Kamakura period, there appeared one of the radical excesses of Buddhism: the attempt to allow all people to think the limits of their thought.

My argument is that if Buddhism would follow this line of the tradition, it would never become a site of the production of ideology, and would never need a non-Buddhism to break it free. In the current conjuncture, however, it seems to me that this retreat from thought is a kind of “mindful” reveling in pure ideology. If we want to escape the limitations of conceptual thought, as so many Western Buddhists say they do, we cannot accomplish this by retreating into an experiential realm that is always completely constructed exactly by the current structure of thought. Our very sense perceptions are informed by the constructions of language, whether we choose to become aware of this or not; there is no escape to be found in the world of pure Being.

I would suggest we think again.


Badiou, A. (2011) Second Manifesto For Philosophy. Louise Burchill, Trans.  Malden, Ma.: Polity Press.

Batchelor, S. (1983) Alone With Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism.  New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Batchelor, S. (2010) Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Garfield, J & Priest,  G.  (2003) “Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought.”  Philosophy East  West, 53(1): 1-21.

Hirota, D. (2006). Asura’s Harp: Engagement with Language as Buddhist Path.  Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag Winter Heidelberg.

Lusthaus, D. (2002) Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih lun.  New York: RoutlegeCurzon.

Nhât Hanh, T. (2006) Understanding Our Mind.  Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Suzuki, D.T. (1964) An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.  New York: Grove Press, Inc.

Zizek, S. (2004) “ From Purification to Subtraction: Badiou and the Real.”  In Think Again,  Peter Hallward, Ed. 165-181.


Tom Pepper

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Painting: “The Thinker,” by Louis Vuittonet. Website.

30 responses to “Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism”

  1. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Hallo Tom,

    this again is food for thought.

    May I suggest another reason for the suspension of thought – not only in the western buddhist world? It is the impression that knowledge, in opposition to truth in the Badiou distinction you show, is readily available ,online‘ and seems always reachable if needed. The need for the work of thought is no longer urgent, because the search-engine with its inbuilt intelligence makes available knowledge instantly – or puts forward this impression. Besides this, there is the steady stream of input of data or so called entertainment, which occupies the awareness of the subject. Both, the promise of knowledge and the occupied awareness block thought. A x-buddhist example is the tricycle website, where they make up the impression that there is every knowledge about buddhism and at the same time there is an ongoing stream of x-buddhistic entertainment.

    But then when you say to the end of your essay „anyone can make the attempt to transcend the limits of their own conceptual framework,“ how can this be initiated when the individual is hypnotized by its conceptual framework to the point where it thinks that it is not hypnotized? (This question is still nagging me)

    At the very end of „Fanged Dialogue“, about the „Cancellation of warrant“, there is a point Glenn makes: „Cancellation is not an intentional act. It is the sudden dissipation—affective and cognitive—of a fata morgana.“

    You also say something in comment #17 in the Sick-Progeny-Thread about „It would be interesting to know what practices and concepts would help to distantiate our ideologies.“

    Elsewhere there are scattered remarks about this question about ,practice‘ on this site. I wonder if it is necessary to make an attempt to clarify here the ,meditational‘ side of the non-buddhistic undertaking.

    How can we provoke „the running up against the limits of what our conceptual system cannot include“?

    You make a distinction between two buddhist ,practices‘, the retreat into „pure being“ and the „escape into philosophical rigor“. That is not all about buddhist meditation in my opinion. What is the ignition of the dissipation of the fata morgana?

    I find there are some strands of thinking in the dzogchen and mahamudra techniques which might have this quality – at least when one cuts away the cultural artifacts.

    I find you presentation of Badiou‘s thought very interesting. Like your karma-clarification this leads to a coming together of buddhist and modern philosophical thought. But, the practice, what is the practice?

    Perhaps a description of the Shinran‘s strategy would help. I will take a look at the book.

    Thanks for this great essay, Matthias

  2. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Hi Matthias,

    Your main question seems to be the same as mine: how do you get through to somebody who is so deeply deluded they don’t even know they’re deluded?

    I don’t really have a solution to that one–but I wish I did. Usually, the approach I take is to say things that rile people up and make them get angry and argue with me. But I’m often told (sometimes on the Tricycle website) that this is not a very Buddhist approach. I’m not sure if it is or isn’t–because I’m not sure if it really wakes anybody from their hypnosis. I do think that koan practice was one way of challenging the practitioner to think at the limits of his conceptual system–but if this is true, it is of course moronic to use koans from another culture and language, since they wouldn’t address the aporia of our conceptual system at all. Shinran would respond to questions by rejecting the underlying assumptions on which the question was based; it is a sort of basic deconstructive strategy, to use language, instead of meditation, to expand the capacity for thought. If you can’t locate Hirota’s book, let me know and I’ll send you a couple of articles he published where he presents a somewhat abridged version of the same argument.

    Overall, we need fellow travelers to help push us along. It is, obviously, very difficult to see what our own conceptual system cannot include. That’s why I always look forward to your questions.


  3. Joop Romeijn Avatar

    This week we heard about the passing away of John McRae, author of
    ´Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism`
    I think “McRae’s Rules of Zen Studies” touch the theme of this thread:
    1 It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important.
    2 Lineage assertions are as wrong as they are strong.
    3 Precision implies inaccuracy.
    4 Romanticism breeds cynicism.


  4. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Matthias, what potent questions and points these are:

    “But, the practice, what is the practice?”

    “Elsewhere there are scattered remarks about this question about ,practice‘ on this site. I wonder if it is necessary to make an attempt to clarify here the ,meditational‘ side of the non-buddhistic undertaking.”

    Quoting Tom Pepper: “It would be interesting to know what practices and concepts would help to distantiate our ideologies.“

    We have to figure out this business of practice, I wholly agree with you. I was struck by your motto “Denken, nicht meditieren.” I have been on the verge of taking that leap myself. But, for reasons that must become woven into my own description of “practice,” I have not taken that leap and have, rather, preserved something like meditation. But it is meditation so stripped of a buddhistic framework–or virtually any other for that matter–that it no longer makes sense to call it “meditation.” I have isolated three components to this “practice:” silence, stillness, and attentional proclivity toward the breath or the breathing body. I proffer no benefits or outcomes or reasons for this practice. If I did, the analogies would be wholly mundane things like sleep, hygiene, or exercise. But still, I sit; like a mute beast frozen in time and space, I sit.

    Pardon my poetry fetish, but maybe Trakl knew more about it than did the Buddha: Spectral Twilight There is this business of not improving, too.

    But still, I agree, we need to figure this piece out. I am hoping to make a contribution with my article “Meditation as Organon of Dissolution.” The danger is always, of course, re-inscribing ideological claptrap or Romantic hooey into our notions of some sort of (implicitly or explicitly) necessary practice. The first question that I ask myself is: what is the practice supposed to accomplish that thinking and observing can’t? Hence, my analogs of sleep and hygiene.

    I think three points provide ground for some traction: (1) Your insistence on the necessity “to make an attempt to clarify here the ‘meditational‘ side of the non-buddhistic [or unbuddhistic] undertaking.” (2) Tom Pepper’s point in the “Raw Remarks” post that “Philosophy can either be an ideological practice, or it can be a critique of, a science of, ideological practices.” I would say the same for the kind of “practice” that, I think, you are referring to. That is, it can either be a game piece in some ideological move or it can instigate an unveiling of the game piece as game piece and unsettle that move. (3) My attempt to salvage a sitting practice that serves as some sort of “organon” complementing thought and observation.

    But let’s figure this thing out–if only roughly and preliminarily. To that end, I would like to hear more about the “strands of thinking in the dzogchen and mahamudra techniques which might have this quality – at least when one cuts away the cultural artifacts.” Maybe at Der Unbuddhist–or, better for us Amis, here! I have always seen tremendous potential for dzogchen/mahamudra thought and practice to underwrite contemporary thought and practice. (In the early 90s, I had an intensive three-year practice relationship with Dzogchen.) But someone does indeed need to take them out to the back porch and, like shag rugs from the 1970s, beat the crap out of them. Can you imagine the dust cloud of cultural Unsinn that would mushroom? It would darken the neighborhood.

    As an aside, about your question to Tom: “But then when you say to the end of your essay „anyone can make the attempt to transcend the limits of their own conceptual framework,“ how can this be initiated when the individual is hypnotized by its conceptual framework to the point where it thinks that it is not hypnotized? ” I wonder if the beginnings of an answer can be found in his Tom’s presentation of Badiou’s notion that the “truth that the subject already contains is not in the “transcendental” mind, but is in the socially constructed symbolic system itself; and because it is socially constructed, the content of a priori knowledge can expand.” I may be “hypnotized” by my current conceptual system, but, being in dialogue with you, this hypnotic state is destabalized, or at least under threat of being so.

  5. Justin W Avatar


    I was directed here by a friend and a colleague, and the content is certainly interesting, so I feel a bit obliged to give a few words of response.

    First, I get the impression that you are trying to tie too much into the discussion. If you want to discuss Western Buddhist anti-intellectualism, you can do it without Spinoza and about half of the other great non-Buddhist minds you mentioned. The same goes with philosophical jargon – we have to use it in our grad-school papers to show that we can, but when we leave the classroom and want to talk to fellow human beings, we need to drop most of it. Unless “the Lacanian leftover of the Real” or “Fermat’s last theorem” are essential to your point, leave them out. Or spare your friends, the readers, the blank stares and give a quick explanation whenever your talking about something that the educated public (ostensibly including those you seem to criticize here) wouldn’t be familiar with.

    Next, I’m not really sure you have made a case that contemporary Western Buddhism is anti-intellectual, at least no more than Buddhism(s) throughout history. There has always been a limit on what language could grasp.

    “In the last couple thousand years, there has been enormous intellectual work in many different schools of Buddhism, but American Buddhists are adamant that any such efforts be labeled “clinging to views” or “ego.””

    This paints with far too broad a brush. The word “some” really must go in there. There are plenty, as you later state, who are not anti-intellectual, or to drop the double negative, their are plenty of American Buddhist intellectuals. Perhaps it would be better to focus on the anti-intellectuals more specifically and avoid trying to make sweeping societal claims. As an American Buddhist academic, I’d certainly appreciate it 🙂

    Concerning a couple specific claims; no Buddhist thinker, I would imagine, could agree that:

    “Our very sense perceptions are informed by the constructions of language, whether we choose to become aware of this or not; there is no escape to be found in the world of pure Being.”

    Buddhist psychology definitely separates sense perceptions and language. And in meditation, at least in the Theravada tradition, there is great emphasis on seeing them clearly so as not to conflate them. Somewhat related, you state:

    “As a result, the true subject, like the Bodhisattva, cannot reach full enlightenment until all sentient beings do—until the entire conceptual system does. Moreover, this is not even a matter of choice: we could not choose to ignore the symbolic network which constructs us, and leave the rest of humanity behind in the dust of ignorance…”

    Again this is bizarre from almost any Buddhist school’s perspective. A very important part of the Bodhisattva’s path precisely is the *choice* to save all beings, given the option to become an arahant instead. Taking that away would deflate the vows tremendously.

    I hope this proves helpful.

    Best wishes, Justin w.

  6. NellaLou (@NellaLou) Avatar

    To pick up a point Justin made above about “Our very sense perceptions are informed by the constructions of language, whether we choose to become aware of this or not; there is no escape to be found in the world of pure Being.” That’s seems to be a variation of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, which has been critically examined, and found wanting for several decades. It might be a little more accurate to say “Our sense perceptions are *interpreted* by the constructions of language…” and that is especially amplified when we attempt to communicate those perceptions to others.

    These perceptions in and of themselves are neurological functions. When we pull away from touching a hot burner or cover our ears and eyes due to the intensity of input, these are reactions not mediated by higher brain function. Even amoebas do similar things. How we understand what has happened, is when the influence of language comes to bear.

    On this point I do agree with the first part, “If we want to escape the limitations of conceptual thought, as so many Western Buddhists say they do, we cannot accomplish this by retreating into an experiential realm” but not the assumption that follows “that is always completely constructed exactly by the current structure of thought.” as I find no evidence for that, especially as it is stated so absolutely.

  7. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Justin W. Thank you very much for joining us here. I appreciate your comments. I’m sure Tom will get back to you with a response to the points you raise. I would just like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few Speculative non-Buddhist ideas using your comment as a partner in dialogue.

    Your idea that we can “discuss Western Buddhist anti-intellectualism…without Spinoza,” etc, and your rebuttals using Theravadin and Mahayana views, suggest, to my Speculative non-Buddhist brain, your subscription to “The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism.” This is the idea, borrowed from Laruelle, that Buddhism’s declarations about reality are adequate to explain matters generally, or even to explain Buddhism itself. A view animating the project at this blog is that Buddhism is sufficient for explaining one thing, and one thing only: Buddhism’s presentation of Buddhism. Buddhism is trapped in a circle of narcissistic reiteration. Your comment here exemplifies this principle. (Related concepts are “buddhemes” and “ventriloquism.”)

    Surely you see the irony in scolding the author of an article on Buddhist anti-intellectualism for using “philosophical jargon”! The examples you cite are “the Lacanian leftover of the Real” and “Fermat’s last theorem.” What is so difficult about those phrases and the ideas behind them? Yes, they may be difficult, and may take time, for some people to grasp. So? (A further irony of your objection here is that Tom references Badiou’s point about the socially constructed symbolic order.) Your point just provides further evidence for my contention that contemporary western Buddhists are inured to language that borders on the banal and the simplistic. Buddhist language, if the glossy mags, the books, the blogs, the scholarship, the dharma sermons, are any indication (and how could they not be?) is boring, uninspiring, monotonous, mind-numbing–I could go on. Why not infuse it with the vigor, drama, and whatever else of “jargon,” and see what the hell happens?

    Finally, your post instantiates what I call “buddhistic decision.” I discuss that idea in some previous posts. I hope you’ll have a look. What tipped me off to the fact that you are beholden to decision was more than just your description of yourself as an “American Buddhist academic.” (It had to do with certain rhetorical moves that you make and the basic apologetic tone of your comment.)

    Anyway, enjoy the blog. I hope you’ll continue to share your views.


  8. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Justin: If I failed to make the case that Western Buddhism is anti-intellectual, your post certainly helped! Perhaps if you had not filled your grad school papers with “jargon” you did not understand, you would understand my argument now. It’s been a quarter of a century since I wrote a grad school papers, and maybe things were different back then–we were expected to make sense when we wrote, and we expected our audience to be well educated. I’m sorry that you find this little piece so confusing, but perhaps you should consider doing some reading, before you feel so “obliged” to respond to things you cannot understand.

    NellaLou: This is a good point–but I didn’t really have the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in mind. I was more thinking of Lacan: we can only see what we know how to look for. Certainly amoeba and reflexes might be react thought-free, but surely we also perceive the world actively, seeking out things, not just waiting for them to hit us or burn us. Even our sense of our bodies, in a Lacanian understanding, is profoundly affected by the structure of our thought–which, of course, includes language. I don’t know where you were looking for your evidence, but I take it that it is fairly common to assert that there are no “pure” perceptions, free of any thought–language doesn’t “shape” or “interpret” raw data, but, to borrow a phrase from a poet, we “half perceive and half create” the world we live in. When we sink down into the bodily sensation, we bring our ideology with us–in the way we feel our body, but also in the naive belief that that is a place of pure, ideology-free, experience. I’m not sure why you are so attached to, of all things, the existence of “thought-free” perceptions; it seems, to me, something only a psychologist would be naive enough to believe in. Don’t try so hard to reduce this concept to an antiquated idea–I am by not means a linguistic relativist, and thought on this matter has come a long way since Whorf. I will say, though, that his work was pioneering and is usually dismissed far too easily without being understood.

  9. Matthias Steingass Avatar

    Glenn, I still practice. The motto „denken, nicht meditiern!“ is partly a simple provocation. But also it is a statement against meditation as something which leads one to ,enlightenment‘. Third it has to do with what I think is special in dzogchen (and mahamudra) in that there is an emphasis not to abandon thinking. Thinking here as every conscious content. The practical point is the ,liberation‘ of the content (as you will know, the rangdrol-thing). It provides time for a relaxation modus of the cognitive as against the working modus. The rangdrol-thing makes it not a daydreaming but provides the experience of seeing the dissolution of content… vanishing. This deems me something very real. If we go more into this we must of course apply your question „what is it supposed to accomplish that thinking and observing can’t?“

    It is not enough though. There must come in the the other side of practice, „Philosophy as a critique of, a science of, ideological practices and an unveiling of the game piece as game piece.“ This is what one would call theoretical if it where not that with learning of the socio-cultural contingencies of ego/self/I one can see the vanishing again. I mean, I can see through theoretical learning how very practically I am a composition and this composition could vanish or change. So somehow both sides of the equation come together as praxis.

    I think at the point of talking about the meditational side of non-buddhism it is very important to find a language together without using generalizations because we are talking about first-person experience and we need to find a way to point out meaning to each other of experiences which just appear… for example one could point to the Trakl-poem and ,feel‘ how an atmosphere is evoked by these few words. But how would one describe the atmosphere one experiences to somebody else…. auf schwarzer Wolke… trunken von Mohn… it is unique.

    The stasis of meditation turns it around. Think of all these nadis and whatever runs through the body in tibetan visualizations. They visualize them and they try to find them, to see them. I think this is futile because it is, maybe, possibly, the other way around: one might experience in sitting, breathing, relaxing wide awake, a ,light‘ in the body – what for synesthetes for example is no problem . Now the holy Lama Synesthete writes it down and for the rest of the millennium everybody else tries to reproduce this light. That is why, I think, generalization in this area is counterproductive and why a real conversation is needed.

    As for your last paragraph, I am beginning to see what you (and Tom) mean. But I wonder how this „rigorous thought that runs up against the limits of what our conceptual system cannot include“ comes together with what I said above… Do we already haver to abandon the human? What then with the evening’s breeze? I have to think.

    Let‘s destabilize each other. It‘s fun.

    P.S. As for the strands of thinking in the dzogchen and mahamudra techniques… perhaps a simple synopsis of the characteristics I mean would do at first – but not before December.

  10. […] between scholars and other Buddhists. I find myself disappointed when I read posts like “Buddhist Anti-Intellectualism“, which claims, “American Buddhists are adamant that any [intellectual work] be labeled […]

  11. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I must admit, I have been surprised and disappointed by the lack of response incited by this post. Not that I expected it to set the world on fire, but it seems to have aroused far less interest than the topic of Buddhism and therapy. I received several emails and Facebook messages about the essay, and even a few notices of other blogs and discussion boards where this essay has been mentioned, but nobody seems to want to discuss the matter here.

    It may be that the tone of my responses is part of the reason, and clearly I have little patience with academics are not intelligent and want to rule out of court anything they are ignorant of. This insistence on maintaining the education of the “man on the street” as the limit of allowable discussion does not belong in academia, and is not useful in any philosophical discussion. As a couple of people have mentioned to me in emails, Dogen would likely have responded to such pride in stupidity by hitting you with his stick and throwing you out of the zendo. The only pale equivalent I have here is my curt tone.

    I doubt I’m sufficiently intimidating, though, to scare off all response. Apparently, this blog has gotten quite a bit of traffic around the world, and I’m curious to hear response from some readers who are more willing (and able) to do serious thought. What kinds of things might it be helpful to rigorously rethink from a (non)Buddhist perspective? What systems of thought, what philosophical problematics, what scientific paradigms, might a Buddhist perspective help us to think our way through and break free of? Any suggestions?

    My own interest, at the moment, is in the theory of the subject, and aesthetics. I’ve also given considerable time and effort to reconsidering the epistemology of science from a more Buddhist perspective. It seems to me these efforts can be hugely useful, but are likely to meet with stubborn resistance from within mainstream academics. A site like this can be a great way to explore questions that are not even comprehensible within the problematic of existing academic debate.

    I’ll bet there’s enough real thought out there to make for some interesting debate. Any takers?

  12. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hi Tom. I share your desire to see more robust discussion about the issues you raise in your comment. In fact, I long for such stimulating discussion. Sadly, though, I am not at all befuddled about the lack of response to your essay and to this blog more generally. I’ll mention a couple of reasons.

    You mention the that the intellectual capacity of the “man in the street” does not constitute a legitimate “limit of allowable discussion.” I agree; and believe that the refusal on this blog, including your essays and responses to comments, to “respect” (it’s not respectful–it’s patronizing) that limit is one reason for tepid response. I perceive another disrespected limit at work here as well: that of tone. The spectrum of allowable emotional tone in Buddhist/mindfulness discourse is extremely limited. To my ears, it ranges between vacuous pollyannaisms and well-mannered English-like disagreement. This uniform niceness of the discourse stems, I suspect, from the participants’ subscription to superficial notions of “compassion” and the inviolate preciousness of the “sangha.” One animating question of this blog at it’s very inception: What about the rest of the spectrum of human response? Hence, the range of tones given voice here. This business of feeling like I have to apologize for responses that are received as aggressive or curt or arrogant–I am done with all that. To paraphrase Herr Nietzsche, I think: Nothing is more ridiculous than a blogger who wants to be liked. The Human Agreement System? Destroy it!

    Finally, when I say that I hope to reach six or seven people with this blog, I mean it. I have come to expect very little from committed Buddhists when it comes to thinking. After all, why should a Buddhist think? The Buddha (Dogen, Nichiren, Thich Nhat Hahn, Sangharakshita, Sharon Salzberg, the Dalai Lama, Alan Wallace, sensei, roshi, etc., etc.) has already figured it all out, right? In practice, the word “sangha” also means: setting limits to thought.

    Those topics you mention sound like the beginnings of a research program–one that would certainly interest me, anyway. I am starting to wonder whether a different format, such as an on-line journal, might better serve our perceived need for more robust work.

    Thanks, Tom.

  13. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Glenn and Tom,

    Perhaps you’ve not made it clear to whom you are actually addressing and wish to be part of the discussion (debate?)? Certainly, there is little here for the so-called “man on the street,” but till now, it hasn’t been so clear that this blog is meant to be only for academics. Indeed, Tom makes it sound like this blog IS “academia.” I’ve been reading along, following as best I can, but much of what you write definitely goes over my head. I’m still struggling with figuring out just exactly what the whole point of it is!

    I continue to read because I DO get some of it, and find it thought-provoking (which I assume is at least one of your motives for writing… to stimulate thought in others), but much of it also seems like mental masturbation (and before you misunderstand, I AM NOT saying masturbation — physical or mental isn’t fun and doesn’t have a purpose, but it’s hard to deny it’s self-indulgent aspect as well).

    As to the original post, I think one of Buddhism’s attractions for many Americans IS its perceived anti-intellectualism, which resonates with the deeply pervasive American anti-intellectualism we see in its pop culture and politics. I am not an academic, nor do I identify myself as an “intellectual,” but I have an intellect and DO believe it is necessary to utilize it in my buddhist practice. The anti-intellectualism of Zen is one of the things I have always hated about Zen.

    Reiterating that I am NOT an academic, I’ve studied and read quite a bit, so find myself invited to teach introductory classes on Indian philosophy for various yoga teacher trainings. Generally, the students are all college educated, with not a few holding Masters and even Doctorates (neither of which I have). And yet, every time I have to explain what is meant by “monism,” “dualism,” “ontology” etc. This is the educated “man on the street!”

    Recently, I was part of a training at Spirit Rock, where I gave the 6th Dharma Talk of a 10-day retreat. Every one of the other teachers who spoke before me prefaced what they had to say by saying “This is not philosophy” as if philosophizing were a dirty thing! I began my talk by pointing out that after each of the previous teachers had said they were not sharing “philosophy,” they had then spent 45 minutes offering just that! And that I would be upfront in affirming that what I would be offering was indeed philosophical thinking, which has always been a part of the Buddhist tradition.

    On the other hand, I think I understand why they felt compelled to offer their disclaimer: there is the pervasive view that all such philosophizing is what is derisively called “arm-chair” philosophy, with no relevance to what they might call “direct experience.” This may also relate to Mathias’ question about “practice” above. What are you offering besides your critiques?

    Tom, this point needs to be made to those other teachers at Spirit Rock (and the majority of Buddhist teachers like them):

    “Every gut-level intuition is shot through with the structure of ideology; our very sensory perceptions are active structuring of the world, not passive reception of stimuli. When we stop thinking, we do not escape ideology, but become fully enslaved by it at the level of the body.”

    But your tone (here I refer to both of you, Tom and Glenn)… I still think it’s bullshit arrogance, not merely curt, and will ensure that you do not reach those who most need to hear what you are saying. The opposite of mean-spirited, dismissive, haughtiness is NOT some “vacuous pollyannaism” or “well-mannered English-like disagreement.”


  14. Tom Pepper Avatar

    Thanks for your reply Frank, but I think what is “bullshit arrogance” is your insistence that whatever you don’t understand it “mental masturbation” (really? THAT tired anti-intellectual cliche?) I’m sorry if you don’t understand everything I write–and I do not, in fact, think of these posts as “academic”: they are far less arcane than the average academic essay. However, perhaps it would be better to just ask questions, instead of insisting what you can easily comprehend is all that needs to be understood. I would think you SHOULD be able to discuss Indian philosophy in terms like “dualism” and “ontology,” but if your students don’t understand, wouldn’t you rather they just asked, before they called you and arrogant jerk-off? It is a shame that college educated people don’t know what terms like “monism” and “empiricism” means, but if they want to understand philosophical thought they are going to have to make the effort to find out. Similarly, if we are going to make any progress in real thought, it is going to require the use of difficult concepts–it’s not arrogance, it’s just the way thought works. At one point, the concept of gravity was incomprehensible to the “man on the street.”

    One thing that does need to be explained to our culture at large is that philosophical thought is never irrelevant to “direct experience.” Truly understanding a thinker like Lacan or Badiou or Spinoza or Marx really changes the very nature of one’s experience of the world.

    I also don’t really consider myself and academic–I just play one at work.

  15. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Thanks, Frank. I appreciate that reply! Some blood–some fire. Let there be life!

    Real quick, this is most indubitably not an academic blog. Neither is it oriented toward philosophy. We are all, every one of us humans, “men on the street” (alas, too few women show up here). I doubt a single Buddhist studies scholar reads this blog. None, at least, has admitted to it so far. Interestingly, a few literary scholars have shown up.

    One of the strange things about Tom’s last post is that it has been read over 2,000 time in just two weeks. I have seen several references to it on different blogs, and have received numerous comments by email and even personally, face to face.

    Believe it or not, this is a mental-masturbation-free zone. Not a single unnecessary word has appeared here. And every word that appears on this blog is brimming with more life and love and relevance than the entire Tripitaka in all languages combined. I know that that statement probably sounds like just so much more”bullshit arrogance;” but it is really one of the most humble expressions your eyes will ever meet.

    I am not being ironic (this time).

    “What are you offering besides your critiques?” Besides? Critique is a huge project. The “speculative” part of the project opens up to endless possibility. One speculative possibility, for instance, that is offered here is the opportunity for the committed practitioner to begin to see buddhistic representation as buddhistic representation. Such seeing as, though, is potentially destructive. So, there is a taking in the very offering. I guess I agree with Beckett, who bemoaned “the farce of offering and receiving.”

    I am curious about your last paragraph. When you say my/our tone is “mean-spirited,” etc., do you mean generally, throughout the blog? I think many tones are present. It is a multi-hued blog, isn’t it? Finally, I’d love t hear who “those who most need to hear what you saying” are. Who do you have in mind? Thanks for joining the conversation, Frank.

  16. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Glenn (and Tom),

    You both deny that this blog is “academic,” nor even “philosophical,” (which I find a bit ironic given my description of those Spirit Rock “philosophy deniers!”), but I was merely responding in particular to Tom’s comment:

    “It may be that the tone of my responses is part of the reason, and clearly I have little patience with academics are not intelligent and want to rule out of court anything they are ignorant of. This insistence on maintaining the education of the “man on the street” as the limit of allowable discussion does not belong in academia, and is not useful in any philosophical discussion.”

    To my mind, the implications that academic discourse is indeed what is going on here are fairly clear from this comment. This isn’t academia, so why say “… maintaining the education of the “man on the street” as the limit of allowable discussion does not belong in academia.”?

    Perhaps there is not one “unnecessary” word throughout your combined posts. But if you DO wish to reach and engage a demographic outside academia (the tired ole ‘man in the street’) might it not be a bit more welcoming if you defined at least some of the more technical philosophical/literary/critical terms. For instance, after speaking about the tendency to reify various concepts (in those lectures to yoga students I mentioned in my previous comment), I now add a phrase or two explaining the term. And, what do you know… greater comprehension arises in my listeners!

    And okay, critique really IS huge, important, and necessary! Perhaps this truly is enough for this venue. I guess my question about “practice” relates to my own approach and relationship to “buddhism.” Frankly, the practices I learned from various buddhist teachers had a lot to do with the fact that I am still alive at the age of 55. All too many of my friends from 30 years ago are dead. Many who are not dead kind of look it! Along with practices, I found that SOME — not all, by a long shot! — buddhist concepts gave me a vocabulary to explain or make sense of my experience and thinking.

    As for “tone,” just read your response to me and then Tom’s and see which one seems more inviting of dialogue! Tom often seems to believe that all of us are ideologically conditioned, except him; that he does indeed have “the truth.” I think it’s mainly his dismissive tone that may be keeping more people from engaging in this forum rather than any “intimidation.”

    Finally, as to whom I have in mind needing to hear your critique, I admit that they are probably the least open to hearing it! But I was thinking of all those “religionists” (and here I even include those “secular buddhists” who seem to believe the buddha had it all worked out “scientifically”) who never think to question the “tradition” (as if there were one tradition!)

    I guess I mean the same folk I responded to and wrote about in my letter to Shambhala Sun a few years ago: http://zennaturalism.blogspot.com/2008/01/as-both-yoga-teacher-and-dharma-teacher.html

    My sense of “betrayal,” if that’s even the right word, was finding that for all the talk about buddhism being non-dogmatic, empirical, and emphasizing inquiry, (if you read my blog post, just note Sutherland’s opening comment about buddhism not paying much concern to belief. As if THAT itself weren’t a core contemporary buddhist belief itself!) I found — as you too did — that the inquiry had some rather firm boundaries, and that the buddhist teachings were for the most part out of bounds!

    I end with a question for you Glenn. What is it, or how is it that you so harmonize what you say here — and I mean both generally throughout your “destructive critique” and in particular here: “And every word that appears on this blog is brimming with more life and love and relevance than the entire Tripitaka in all languages combined” with your work like the recent Pali reader or your almost rhapsodic Introduction to your Basic Teachings of the Buddha?

    thanks, again.

  17. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Hello Frank. I think your final question gets right to the heart of the matter. How do I harmonize my past work on Buddhism, which was concerned with a hermeneutics of appreciation, with my current critique, which is closer to a hermeneutics of suspicion? My answer: I don’t. And I can tell you what is responsible for that stance. It is thinking. I could expand and say: it is also meditation practice, change, and, perhaps, even something like growth. Samuel Beckett may wonder what the point is of “seeking justification always on the same plane.” I go further and wonder how one can possibly do so. A contention permeating this blog is that thinking, interdisciplinary dialogue, practice that is attuned to ideological coercion, speculative sundering, and so on, render, in this case, the Buddhist status quo, indeed the entire X-buddhistic project (the “same plane”) vulnerable.

    I admit that I might be out of touch with how non-academics use the term “academic.” As something like an academic (although I don’t characterize myself or my recent work that way anymore, others do), nothing on the blog is academic. An academic would scoff at the claim that it were so. Jayarava has many thoughtful things to say on this topic (a more recent post–maybe from the summer–is on the role of the amateur in the world of scholarship). Maybe “academic” is being used synonymously with difficult or demanding or challenging or strange.

    By the way, I do have a paper, which I’ll post soon, that explains a lot of my terminology. It may help some; and it may hurt some.

    Thanks for the link. I look forward to exploring the content. Peace.

  18. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I just want to clarify one thing–the comment you seem so bothered by, in which I use the term academia, was not meant to assert that this blog IS academia. I was simply trying to explain that I tend to be particularly impatient with anti-intellectuals who ARE in academia; it is discouraging in the culture generally, but doesn’t rouse my ire except when it comes from those in higher education. I think if you read through the entire post the point will be clear.

    As for my dismissive tone with YOU, well, what kind of response do you expect to your own tone? You basically called be an arrogant asshole–I thought I was being fairly even tempered, but I suppose I wasn’t inviting further response. Being told I’m haughty or mean-spirited or arrogant every time I say something somebody doesn’t understand gets tiring. And I would hardly say I am not ideologically conditioned; I think if I have one advantage over many other people, it is that I know that I AM always functioning within ideology–that I do not take my ideology for transcendent truth.

    In regards to the passage you quoted in post #13 above: if you understand the truth of it (and it is not an idea that is original to me, by any means), why don’t you try to share it with the teachers at Spirit Rock? I will try to spread the word in my own way, but I doubt those teachers are an audience that would ever listen to me! In situations like that, I’m always (a bit absurdly, I guess) reminded of the musical 1776, when Adams refuses to write the Declaration of Independence because nobody would accept it if he wrote it; he sings, repeatedly, “I’m obnoxious and disliked, you know that’s so!” As your reaction to my reaction above makes clear, even when I think I’m being even-tempered and affable, i apparently come off as arrogant and dismissive. I have always said I am very weak in skillful means.

    And as for being “philosophical,” well, it depends what you mean by that. I certainly and not reluctant to use philosophical concepts, but a “professional” philosopher would likely scoff at my writing. I generally do not work within their problematic, their set of questions and rules of discourse, and so my arguments seem scattered and thoroughly uninteresting to those trained in academic philosophy. I would hazard a guess that Glenn’s thought would get the same response: he just refused to address the “really important” questions in the proper terms.

  19. Tom Pepper Avatar

    One of the claims I made in the essay above is that one reason for anti-intellectualism is, perhaps, that many people feel that philosophical “thought,” of the postmodern, relativist, language-games variety, has failed us miserably, and they see no alternative other than a retreat from thought altogether. Badiou has argued that this “linguistic turn” in philosophy is the form reactionary thought has always taken, in an attempt to insist that we cannot change the world, so should only change our minds. When that’s the best philosophy is giving us (and it does seem to be, here in the US, all philosophy is giving us–if any philosophers out there know differently, please let me know where else to look!), well, then, what else is there but to reject thought completely, and retreat into the “body,” letting society run its “natural” course.

    Just the other day, I was somewhat confirmed in my conviction when I came across an article from Tricycle Magazine, written nearly 20 years ago, which has recently gotten a flurry of comments on the website. In the interview, Robert Thurman is talking about his new (then) book, “The Politics of Enlightenment,” in which he argues that it is incumbent upon Buddhists, as Buddhists, to engage in political activism. Interestingly, I think it is probably about the only one of Thurman’s many books that is no longer in print.

    The responses to this interview cover the gamut of reactionary thought. The majority of those commenting insist that Buddhism and politics have never been combined, until a bunch of “new age liberals” decided to combine them. When one commenter points out that Buddha seems to have been involved in advising political leaders, nobody seems able to understand what he is saying. Then one post suggests that attempts to produce mathematical models of social systems prove that the social world is too “complex” to ever change–apparently supporting the assertion that Buddhists must retreat from it and stick to their navel-gazing, contentedly sipping tea and staring at flowers.

    The interesting thing for me was the absolute assumption that these commenters have that politics cannot do anything, cannot change anything at all. So, they turn to Buddhism, of all things, as compensation for a world they think must just naturally run along its capitalist path. The best we can do is find some solace in private meditation. One commenter even explicitly claimed that the ideal world would be one with no government at all, ruled purely by the capitalist “free market,” coupled, somehow, with a “Buddhist philosophy.” In this state of despair about potential to change the world, and an absolute incapacity to even imagine politics, instead of economics, in charge of society, when we have even forgotten how to conceive of any other social form than capitalism, is it any wonder people are insisting on an apolitical, anti-intellectual Buddhism?

    I encourage everyone to keep thinking! At the very least, stop meditating on the body and start trying to conceive of a world in which the economic system does not reign supreme. Capital has become the only Subject in our world and we are just objects serving it, and the only way to become Subjects ourselves is to THINK. As long as we accept the reactionary ontology in which our perceptions are absolutely relative and the only real thing is the “natural,” autonomous economy, we are, in Buddhist terms, trapped in our karma, and the only “being” capable of liberation is capital itself.

    Just some late-night thoughts from an unreconstructed leftist, who will always insist that Buddha started the first truly radical political movement–and he did it with a great deal of philosophical thought!

  20. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Tom, your comment above is really interesting and raises more questions! Perhaps, as you suggest, “one reason” for the contemporary anti-intellectualism you are addressing is indeed the sense that post-modern philosophy has “failed us,” but I also think there’s an element of the more deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism of American “populist culture” that predates post-modernism. It seems to me that many people drawn to buddhism (and yoga — please, don’t even get me started about the anti-intellectualism of the so-called ‘yoga community!’) come from relatively naive ‘new-agey’ type backgrounds, where critical thinking is not really valued. In fact, many of them share a (not too-thought out) form of relativism (“it’s all good,” “all paths lead to the same place,” etc) which makes thinking rather irrelevant!

    I am not overly surprised that the majority of the comments assert that Buddhism and politics have never been combined because most western buddhists really do not know much about the history of buddhist traditions. I bet many of them are even Dalai Lama fans, not comprehending that (until recently) he was the head of state! And of course there’s the example of Ashoka in India (as well as the buddha himself advising several kings and attempting to prevent a war etc); the history of buddhism and politics in China, Korea and Japan, Sri Lanka and just about everywhere else it is found in Asia!

    But, what I am surprised at is that I would have expected that more of the Tricycle readership would actually come from the more ‘liberal’ end of the spectrum and be influenced (if only lip-service) to “engaged buddhism.” And even here, the major movers in that movement have been primarily Asian!

    Finally, I don’t think the answer is to completely stop “meditating on the body.” The buddha’s meditation on the body (ultimately two of the four foundations of mindfulness) didn’t keep him from thinking. There needn’t be an opposition between meditating on the body and thinking.

    Thanks Tom.

  21. Tom Pepper Avatar


    I would agree that there is a “populist” anti-intellectualism, a part of mainstream culture, that far predates and exceeds postmodernism. My guess is that the majority of Americans would not even have any idea what the word postmodern means. Among my students, only a few of the English majors are familiar with the concept (if I can call it that). So, there are probably a great many Western Buddhists who are anti-intellectual, and politically on the right, for different reasons than those I’ve suggested. My interest was to try to make sense of those Buddhists who are educated, politically liberal, and still adamantly anti-intellectual. I know quite a few of them, many very highly educated, some even college professors, who will dismiss any intellectual work as attachment to views, and roll their eyes when someone mentions reading anything as demanding as an entire book. Many of my colleagues have not even read the scholarship in their own field in over a decade, and some of them have turned to Buddhism mixed with new-age “spirituality” as a substitute for thought.

    On your last point: I would absolutely agree that the discussion of sati in the pali canon does not separate thought from the felt sense of the body. There are a few Buddhists teachers who have tried to make this point, to remind us that there is much more to mindfulness than bare awareness of momentary sensation; that, in fact, if the entire Anapanasati or Satipatthana Suttas are taken into account, we must be aware of all the causes and conditions, and all the karmic effects, of our momentary situation–something that American Buddhists repeatedly dismiss as impossible. Of course it is difficult, and that’s the point. It may even be impossible, but no more impossible than the illusion that we can even HAVE any such thing as “pure” thought-free awareness of sensations. So yes, I would agree that sati meditation could still serve its purpose, but not meditation on the body as it is commonly understood in the mainstream Buddhism in America.

    I, also, am frequently surprised by the political bent of many Buddhist, even in my own sangha. Probably this is naive. Tibet, which they envision as a kind of lost Shangri-La, was the most reactionary and oppressive aristocratic state left in the world at the time of its demise.

    Thanks Frank.


  22. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Tom, thanks for your reply.

    I may not have been clear enough, however in my comment. What I am saying is that the American anti-intellectual tendency is not limited to the right and that there is also a leftist/liberal (perhaps ‘romantic’ or ‘idealist’ influenced?) version as well. AND, that’s who I see a lot of in the buddhist communities I am aware of. For the most part, these are white, middle (often upper-middle class) college educated people with a strong anti-intellectual streak and rather than a conscious (or even unconscious) reaction to ‘post-modernism,’ it is a more romantic, even mystic rhetoric of immediacy (“direct” or “unmediated” experience) that underlies their anti-intellectualism.

    In my blog, I ‘reviewed’ “Zen In Plain English” by Stephen Schumacher, a book that is replete with this form of anti-intellectualism. I include this excerpt merely to offer an example of what I mean.

    Also, you do make a really important point; one I try to stress whenever I am teaching: “sati” (or “mindfulness”) is NOT merely “choiceless awareness” on sensation. The buddha offered an analytic meditation, investigating, discerning causes and conditions. All with the purpose of gaining clarity so that we can change the conditions if we don’t like what we see!

    From my blog:

    “…over the years, there have been quite a few things about Zen, and how it’s presented by its teachers and masters, that I have found distasteful, pig-headed, and quite frankly, morally and philosophically bankrupt. I’m not about to go into every one of these things here, but I am prompted to write after reading Zen In Plain English by Stephen Schumacher. The apparent sub-title of this book is Experience The Essence of Zen and in fact, the inner cover proclaims: “This book could well be called “The Zen of Zen.” It is not simply a book about Zen Buddhism; it is a direct expression of the Zen spirit itself.” What that means is expect posturing and obfuscation, and that is what you will indeed find here – along with some very good writing and explication. Zen is, truly, a mixed bag!

    Schumacher studied philosophy, psychology and sociology, and then Japanology and Sinology, before heading off to Japan where he eventually “dedicated himself entirely to Zen practice.” From 1970 to 1975, his practice was within the Sambo Kyodan tradition, under the guidance of Yasutani Hakuuin Roshi and Yamada Koun Roshi. Schumacher is the editor and co-author of the Shambhala Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen.

    My qualms with Mr. Schumacher’s book begins with the first paragraph of his “Prelude.” He writes, and already begins the all-too-typical Zen blustering against historical scholarship:

    “This book is a presentation of Chan or Zen from the perspective of Zen. It is not an account of facts and events which occurred in the distant past, a record that is merely meant to correct from the point of view of an academic understanding of history. A historical approach, helpful as it may be for an understanding of the development of the outward form, misses the very essence of Zen – and on should not forget that it is one of the characteristics of Zen to steer as directly as possible, towards the essential.”

    The first line warns us not to expect much more than the self-aggrandizing tendency of the Zen tradition. The second reminds us that Zen will not let “facts” or historical “events” get in the way of a good story! He offers a bit of pablum by saying the historical approach can be helpful for understanding the outward form, as if the outward form can be separated from its significance and meaning! The forms took shape because of and along with, certain ideological, cultural, and political constructions, and to deny this or to turn a blind eye to this reality is simply willfully ignorant.

    But finally, the major point of my criticism is this notion of “essence.” At the very least, Schumacher should clearly define what he means when he uses the term, as it is one (and he should know, considering his philosophical studies) laden with connotation for westerners. And Buddhism is an un- or even anti-essentialist teaching! What is the “essence” of Zen and what is the “essential” it allegedly “steers us toward?”

    On the very next page, he goes on to argue an essentialist perspective by denying that the historical, social and cultural conditions under which an ‘enlightened Asian’ has said or done something have anything to tell us about enlightenment! Awakening is to conditions; to be ‘enlightened’ is to be enlightened about something. One of the tendencies of the Zen tradition is to reify enlightenment into something ahistorical and acontextual. Schumacher asks “Can (Zen) help me to find my solution?” and answers: “It can only do so if it is more than history, if is transmits a truth that is independent of historical circumstances. And indeed, what is transmitted by the Zen tradition is a truth of a different order than that of the historical truth of the scholars.”

    The first part of that statement is bullshit. Zen doesn’t transmit some ‘transcendent’ Truth with a capital T. The ground of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, are not some such Truth, but truths about circumstances that we need to nobly face in order to live wholesome, free, creative lives! The second part of that statement is typical Zen tradition self-aggrandizement. Now, I am not saying there’s no difference between the academic, scholarly approach to Zen and the practitioner’s approach. What I am saying is that they are not at odds, and that increasingly so we find practitioner-scholars whose practice does not seem to be threatened or undermined by their scholarship, and indeed who find it nourished and broadened by such scholastic understanding.

    One example of this is his treatment of the supposed ‘dharma transmission’ from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa. Anyone who has read any Zen at all, knows the story: a large group (some accounts say 80,000) were assembled at Vulture Peak to hear the Buddha give a teaching. (If you’ve been to Vulture Peak, you know this is one hell of an exaggerated number!). As they all awaited the Buddha’s words, he stood there, and held up a flower and blinked his eyes. Kashyapa broke out in a smile, and the Buddha said: “I have the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma, the ineffable mind of nirvana. I entrust it to Mahakashyapa.”

    The Zen mythos states that this was the first of a long line of dharma transmissions, first in India, then in China. There are many students of Zen who believe this is historically true. There are also many who, after years of believing so, have found out that this is pure legend, with no basis in historical fact, and have felt betrayed. That’s what you get when you pass along myth as “Truth.”

    Listen to how Schuhmacher addresses this issue:

    “If we are to believe the academic scholars of Buddhism, the lineage of Zen transmission… is a fake, a defensive lie. It is born out of the attempt by later Zen teachers, to justify their own claim to be authentic descendents of the Buddha through a lineage that was artificially constructed, a posteriori, to demonstrate an uninterrupted chain of ‘transmission of the light,’ from the historic Buddha to themselves. From a historic point of view, this may not even be completely erroneous.

    Does historical truth so threaten his faith that it has to be wrong? Of course, this is what we expect from someone (and a tradition) that likes to think of itself as ahistorical to begin with! Here again he seems to think that “a mere historical understanding of the transmission in Zen” misses “by far the essential truth of what the Awakened One taught.” Again he goes to his dearly beloved “essential truth” but it is Schuhmacher who is missing a deeper truth. If we close our eyes to the historical truth, we fall, hook, line and sinker for the political ploy of ‘transmission’ and cloud our eyes with mystic dust!

    Philip Yampolsky writes: “To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled, tracing the Ch’an sect back to the historical Buddha…” The whole lineage chanted in many Zen centers is more fabrication than literal truth. Indeed, the idea of lineage was Chinese manufactured, reflecting the more Confucian ideal of ancestor worship and the hierarchal stratification of Chinese society. In the Pali Canon it is explicitly made clear that the Buddha rejected naming anyone as his successor. The almost obsessive emphasis on lineage and authenticity of transmission found in Zen has led to much abuse, and ironically, we see its roots at the very beginning with the story of Mahakashyapa, and then further elaborated in the story of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu.”

  23. Tom Pepper Avatar

    I do think your comment was clear enough, I did understand it, and I don’t think what I’m saying contradicts it. I absolutely agree that there is a left-leaning kind of anti-intellectualism, and I think it is absolutely a grandchild of the Romantic period, and is idealist in both the popular and the philosophical senses of the term. This is the kind of Heideggerian mysticism of dasein I mentioned. I still would suggest, though, that for many of these people it is not purely stupidity or laziness, but ideologically produced blindness combined with the failure of our American educational system to show them any alternative, in thought, to the linguistic turn. Philosophical thought all seems so pointless, and they’re looking for something that isn’t, that can have some real world meaning. The problem is they cannot see, again, for ideological reasons, that this Romantic mysticism is a reactionary philosophy, and they mistake for the liberal substitute for thought they are looking for.

    Many may not be so much “reacting” to postmodernism’s nonsense, but postmodernism is still the reason there is so little opportunity for them to see the alternative.

  24. Frank Jude Boccio Avatar

    Ah, I think I see what your meaning is, and I agree. I hope I didn’t give the impression I thought these folk are “stupid” OR “lazy.” I agree much of it has to do with the American educational system that ‘downloads’ information, but really doesn’t do much in terms of teaching the skills of critical thinking. I certainly was never exposed to such until I took specific electives. (AND I still find much of such thought whizzing by me!) When I did graduate work through a British university, I was humbled by the depth of engaged, critical thinking the students exhibited — like nothing I’d ever experienced in any US school.


  25. Dhammarato HappyNas Avatar

    The Authors understanding of “thought” and its relationship with dhamma practice is misguided. If what he said is the typical understanding of western Buddhism, then we all need a do-over. Luckily not all westerners are this misguided. Some of us understand. Perhaps if the author understood “thought” better, he would not be so angry at Buddhism.

  26. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    Dhammarato, well, go on. How might we understand “thought” better and thus live in accord with the True Dharma? We anxiously await your reply.

  27. Mitro Avatar

    Yes. A very penetrating piece indeed.

    There are many valid points made here especially about ‘thinking the limits of emptiness’ and breaking conceptual boundaries via the intellect. As with everything though, interpretations of such things abound. It is quite understandable how the western affiliates of Buddhism have taken this as retreating back and away from the intellect and into the body and its senses instead of exploring and investigating out into the endless opportunities of conceptualization and its potential of achieving a kind of singularity that encompasses all. I am guessing that a part of this is laziness and an other part is intellect bashing but there is also probably some element of packaging all thinking into one type. We must all admit that useless thinking runs havoc in our minds throughout the day causing all sorts of mischief and many turn to the Eastern philosophies to address these issues. As a consequence though all thinking becomes a target, rather than eliminating what is truly troublesome to allow room and energy for the directed analysis and intellectualism that is potentially beneficial for all. In addition though and Interestingly enough the stories and myths throughout all traditions of Buddhist literature relating to both gradual and spontaneous enlightenment have represented both cases of eliminating all thought and reaching bare awareness as well as blowing right out of conceptual being into a grander understanding. The former for some reason seems to be more popular, probably due to its ease and the cultural trends of connecting to the natural world and returning to our original organic states through certain practices which is of course highly speculative and questionable. Other than the Rinzai tradition of Koans I can’t think of much else that attempt to push concepts over the edge and turn whatever it is you think you know inside out rather than dismiss it completely. Whether that works or not is a different story.

    One thing I am curious about though is whether this proposed rigorous thinking only refers to discursive intellectual activity or whether it also includes non discursive abstract experiential investigations. Different people think in different ways and for some logically formulated structures are the go to method whilst for others internal temporospatial representations some of which are symbolic and others not work better.

    In the meantime I will keep trawling through these pages for more stuff to muse on.


  28. Dave s Avatar
    Dave s

    This is where you lost me:

    “More recently, Thich Nhat Hanh has followed a similar approach. One could almost open any of his books and find a statement about the futility of thought, or the vanity of ‘philosophy,’ or a statement that true enlightenment is full enjoyment of a cup of tea or the beauty of a flower. We must never examine the history of imperialism that is the condition of our enjoying this cup of tea, or the cultural privileging of the temporary, of the extravagant ability to devote resources to the useless, which are the cause of our pleasure in the flower. That would be thought, and so delusion: enlightenment is just insisting that the culturally produced experiences we enjoy the most are a contact with the timeless reality of “interbeing.’”

    Is it philosophical thought you want or pointless criticism of the past that is engaged in only to make you feel guilty for having been born into the present?

    If it were really the former you were after, I would have finished the article.

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