Ghost Buddha

Are you a believer in ghosts, my friend?

Haul in the chains. Let the carcase go astern… It is still colossal.*

Reading Toni Bernhard‘s article recounting the life story of the Buddha on the recent Psychology Today blog (link at bottom), together with some comments about it on the Secular Buddhist Facebook page,  brought back a memory. Several years ago an editor at Routledge Press asked me to write a new biography of the Buddha. I discussed the idea with my agent, who thought it was something worth exploring. Little did I know at the time that this “exploration” would bind me to the mast of the Pali canon as it plowed unrelentingly through the ocean of the dispensation. Like Ahab, I single-mindedly searched and searched for that elusive object of desire: flesh and blood of the living Buddha. But unlike Ahab, after three years immersed in the search I found not so much as a scrap of flesh or a trace of blood of any historical being. For all literary presentations of the Buddha, man, are but as pasteboard masks.**

In a post here called “Nostalgia for the Buddha,” I worked up some of my notes from that doomed project.  Bernhard’s article, though, makes me wonder anew: Why, why do x-buddhists continue to embrace this Sunday-school fable of the Buddha? It is particularly curious that the scientifically-allied, ostensibly de-mythologized modern variety of x-buddhists do, isn’t it? Why this recurring, and seemingly unacknowledged (by x-buddhists, at least), argument from authority? And why this dishonesty about the lack of reliable data for the so-desired Authority? Or is it ignorance rather than dishonesty? And if ignorance, is it the dark unknowing kind or the willful variety? I admit that, in past writings, I myself have done some damage in arguing for the reconstruction of a recoverable historical figure named “Gotama.”

Let me repent.  My several years’ effort of searching for a reliable historical basis for a biography of Siddhattha Gotama can be summed up as this: Gotama is a ghost. He is a non-entity. Let me elaborate (from “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism“):

Protagonist, The. The progenitor of the Buddhist dispensation. He is referred to by various names, such as “The Buddha,” “Gotama,” “The Blessed One,” etc. Speculative non-buddhism’s designation “The Protagonist” is intended to indicate the irrefutable fact that “the Buddha” is a historical figure entirely overwritten by a literary one. Not the slightest wisp of evidence has survived that sheds light on the historical progenitor. Any reliable historical evidence that once existed has been reduced to caricature by the machinations of internecine Buddhist institutional shenanigans and the stratagems of ideological dupery. The figure of the Buddha in the classical Pali texts is a concoction of the collective imaginations of the numerous communities that, over several centuries, had a hand in the formation of the canon. Add to this imaginative mélange the imaginings—cultural, political, fantastic, ignorant—of all the iterations of all forms of x-buddhism, and the result is Buddha as Cosmic Magic Mirror, reflecting all things to all people. A viable composite human figure “The Buddha” can be salvaged from this protean symbol of buddhistic vanity only with force of the darkest, most atavistic yearning of puerile nostalgia for The Great Father.

So, here’s my question: Why, given their ostensible sophistication, do contemporary x-buddhists cling so stubbornly (ignorantly? something else?) to a naïve understanding of the very nature of the texts and teachings from which they derive so much authority for their lives?

Another question (added 12-5-11): How would your reception of Buddhism be affected if you saw it as a hodge-podge of often disconnected ideas and theories about human being (which it is)?

What are your thoughts?


* Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter sixty-nine.

** Ibid., chapter thirty-six: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.”

Toni Bernhard’s article, “Who was the Buddha?”

Image by Patrick Trotter, “Ghost Dance.”

94 thoughts on “Ghost Buddha

  1. This is an interesting question, and my short answer is: the persistence of ideology. We have a great deal of trouble really fully “thinking” the ramifications of the philosophical positions we “understand” perfectly well. Of course there is not such thing as an individual subject, we are all just bearers of structures, we all “understand” that; but it is my “self,” a unique “mind” separate from all other structures that I “think” is the one who knows this truth. The insistence on the existence of autonomous, discrete, abiding selves is very hard to overcome. So, if there was a Buddha, who saw the truth, he must have been a special and unique individual, who I can look up to an emulate so that I can also be a special and unique individual.

    This is what people come to Buddhism for, most often–to feel that they are spiritually superior (to others, to the samsaric world), and a few may actually get to the point of understanding anatman. Whenever I admit, for instance, that I still feel anger or attachment, people tell me I am a bad Buddhist, still a beginner, and that they have no anger and attachment anymore, they have gotten “farther along the path” than me. My response is that if I am a bearer of structures, a product of causes and conditions, then the only way I could not (or should not) feel anger is if I live in an ideal world, where all beings have the capacity to use their full potential and come to full understanding; if I felt no anger, I would have to be either deluded or ignorant, cut off from the reality of the world. This argument, of course, doesn’t get me very far. Those who have calmed all anger in their “selves” cannot grasp what anatman might possibly mean–to them, it means only that I am not my body, I am a deep “true” self that can be extracted from samsaric defilement and purified.

    This impossible disconnection between what people can “understand” as knowledge and what they can fully “think” is quite common. I know a great number of Literature professors and grad students, and almost all of them would immediately consent that there is no such thing as a universal aesthetic standard, that all such decisions of “taste” are made to support and reproduce the interest of the group in power. I don’t know more than half a dozen who would not say, in the next breath, that of course Proust is “better” than Zola, or Joyce “better” than Dreiser, or whatever–that this difference it transcendent, not cultural, and “everyone” can see it. They cannot even see this as a contradiction at all, not matter how glaringly they are forced to face it.

    Buddhism is difficult, I think, not because it is complex, or abstract, or requires many years of training in strange languages and sitting in uncomfortable positions. It is difficult because making this jump from “knowing” that anatman is true to really “thinking” within the structure of thought that entails is nearly impossible. It is a sudden leap, that nobody can lead you to step by step.

    Since reading Brassier’s book, following a post on this blog, I have become increasingly engaged with the work of Badiou. Brassier critiques him in a way I thought just didn’t seem to get Badiou right, and on going to read Badiou I found that there is a host of recent translations of his works. In one of them “Logics of Worlds,” Badiou gives a definition of the subject that I think could help resolve this impasse (although I suspect many people will “understand” it but not be able to really “think” it–this seems to me to be the problem with Brassier’s critique). Badiou conceives of the “subject” as distinct from the “individual.” The subject is the only source of agency and change, but it is not a discrete “person” or “self.” Badiou tells us that “The materialist dialectic says: ‘there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths’. The ‘except that’ exists qua subject.” The subject can be a political party, an artistic movement (the ‘great Viennese composers’ between Schoenberg and Webern is one of Badiou’s examples). The subject is “that which imposes the legibility of a unified orientation onto the multiplicity of bodies.”

    With this concept, why can’t the subject “Buddha” be a centuries-long combination of institutions and practices? A subject that has agency and produces new truths, makes visible in the world truths that had been excluded from it. It could, of course, but our ideology keeps demanding that we look to individuals, demanding that MY subjectivity is coterminous with my body, is unique and not produced by causes and conditions, so any great subject “Buddha” must be a bodily discrete individual even greater than me–proving to me that I can perfect myself, I can achieve pure happiness and freedom from defilements on my own, without any change in the external situation. We can’t truly think of “mind” as a product of discourses and language and social practices, not matter how often we say so in our graduate philosophy classes; we still can’t “think” our minds as anything but coterminous with our brains.

    I wonder what would have happened if you had written that “biography” of the Buddha from within this conception of the subject. Would the publisher have been angry? Would there have been an audience for such a thing? A biography of the Subect Buddha, the subject that advances the possibility of anatman, as opposed to a history of the (objective) conditions of Buddhism paired with the myth of a supernatural individual, might go a long way to helping x-Buddhists really think truth of anatman.

  2. Having repeatedly discovered that the major heroes of Tibetan Buddhist history were fictional, I adopted the heuristic that all Buddhist saints should be assumed imaginary until proven historical.

    About two years ago, it suddenly occurred to me to apply this to Shakyamuni, who I’d always assumed had some well-documented historical basis. I’ve never found the Pali Canon inspiring, so I have never cared about that guy. However, wouldn’t it be interesting if the pattern of attributing new teachings to hagiographized invented saints started from the beginning?

    So I read a little. Only a little, because I really don’t care—today’s Buddhism works or doesn’t, regardless of what Shakyamuni said, or whether he existed.

    Still, I found a total lack of any reason to think there was such a person. Plus some weak reasons to think he didn’t. (Partly just that he is too good a propaganda vehicle not to have been invented.)

    I’ve read enough of the history to have some speculations about what actually happened and when; who invented him and why. But, I haven’t read enough to go public with those. And since it probably doesn’t matter, I probably never will 🙂

    [One thing: I think one thing that went wrong was that archaeologists and textual critics both assumed that the other group had established a historical basis, because they weren’t communicating with each other.]

    Doesn’t your question include its answer, though? Buddhists, like everyone else, want transcendental authority so badly that they are willing to ignore facts.

  3. I’m enjoying this discussion. I only wish you had included a link to my piece at Psychology Today, so your readers would know what you were referencing. Assuming it’s okay with you, I’ll leave it here:

    Note that the first paragraph does acknowledge that, “As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically.”

    Thanks for this fascinating discussion.

  4. Hi Stephen. I don’t know if you’re addressing me or not in your comment, but I’ll respond. First, how can anyone not be willing to forego certainty? it’s a universal law! Second, I don’t care if the Buddha really existed or if he was a myth. The teachings that have come down to us under his name, for me, are the path to freedom from dukkha in this life. Re-telling the story—whether it be myth or not—inspires me to continue to look deeply at dukkha, come to understand it, and begin to see the way to extinguish it.

  5. Hi Glenn,

    Yes. The Buddha is on the whole an allegorical fiction these days, and we don’t really know if he was ever anything more. Close attention to our earliest textual authorities reveals no recorded first name. The name Siddhartha appears only in later sources. His supposed surname was from one of the oldest and most prestigious Brahmin lineages mentioned in the Ṛgveda: Gotama (=most cows) from which we get the Surname Gautama (meaning ‘related to [the ancestor] Gotama). This is not a name that Kṣatriya can have been called, let alone someone who was most likely entirely outside the Brahmanical varṇa system.

    So the Buddha is not just a ghost, but he is a nameless ghost!

    Almost every “fact” of Toni’s brief biog is actually contradicted in Pāli texts themselves! See for instance: If the Buddha lived it was almost certainly not in the way that Toni recounts. And I think we’ve got to the point where the contradictions and what we might call “metaphor blindness” is starting to become a liability. It really does smack of Sunday School, and that is not a road I wish to go down.

    There is a role of allegory and metaphor and myth in society. Sometimes what we need to learn is best communicated in some anthropomorphic form because it helps to raise an appropriate emotional response that enhances learning – since in all cases the weight we give to facts that help us decide between them is determined by how we _feel_ about them. But yes, we do tend to take our own metaphors too literally. I’m not sure that the Sunday School allegories of ancient India really serve us any more.

    In accepting these cheesy stories of the Buddha as supra-human being come to save us by His Sacrifice (familiar story?) I wonder if people are siding with the Romantics who still want to bury science? Rationality is evil to them.

    On the other hand the simplistic story is a great marketing tool that gets bums on cushions and to some extent maybe it doesn’t matter why people meditate, as long as they do. I no longer find it an attractive approach, but I’m already an insider with a lifelong commitment.

  6. Jayarava,

    >>In accepting these cheesy stories of the Buddha as supra-human being come to save us by His Sacrifice (familiar story?) I wonder if people are siding with the Romantics who still want to bury science? Rationality is evil to them.<<

    Yes! And not only rationality, but even the effort of thought is terrifying today. It might accidentally reveal our complicity in the suffering of others–that our iphones and suvs require the oppression of billions. Say this to an "x-Buddhist" and they smile smugly at your "naivete", your unwillingness to "face your own emotions", and continue obsessing about their deep personal pain.

    I think it very much does matter why people meditate. At best, meditation for the wrong reasons is a waste of time, and people become bored and decide Buddhism is a primitive and immature religion, then move on to the next new age fad. At worst, meditation can work very well to help keep the causes of real human suffering invisible.

  7. Recently I was going through my log-entries looking for how much I myself went into thaumaturgical refuge. Roughly one year after I went throttle up into calm-abiding practice I find a telling entry. It is from after a practice-retreat where the sweet bewildering opium of falling in love had infected me. After recovering from the episode I reflected a bit about the incident. The person which caught my attention was a devout kagyu buddhist. The entry reads as follows:

    „I really have been crazy about her. This was also noticeable in regard to my stance vis-à-vis kagyu-buddhism. While trying to sort out what rituals, views, tenets can withstand a critical rational consideration, infatuation dyes everything in a sweet pink color. Suddenly I find myself much more inclined to through overboard my concerns about certain rituals which seem to me culture-specific and as such irrelevant to me.“

    Another example shows a much more covered up process: I never have been very much interested in the Dalai Lama when I began meditation-practice, so I would have answered once when asked wether I care what his opinion is, that I am neutral about him because I don‘t know much about him or of his texts. – I was proved wrong. Once I did a lot of reading in Tibetan history. At one point I compared the account of the search for the 14th Dalai Lama Melvyn Goldstein gives in his „A History of Modern Tibet“ with the accounts of the Dalai Lama himself. The differences in the two accounts lead to the conclusion that the Dalai Lama himself is against all evidence leaning towards an esoteric reading of the finding of his 14th manifestation, while Goldstein‘s account tells about a very pragmatic process which leaves no room or need for extra-physical ramblings.

    I not only developed the investigative interest to follow this telling trail of difference, I also developed, to my own astonishment, an angry stance against ,His Holiness‘. How the hell can this man disregard all the evidence Goldstein is laying out? He knows him personally, Goldstein‘s book has been published in 1989 and is one, I think, of the defining histories of Tibet from a western historical perspective, he must consider this!? I think the picture I had about this holy man was infected, without having read much about or from him during my whole life, by a certain discours without me being conscious of it. Somehow I had adopted the idea that a Buddhist like the Dalai Lama would weigh all evidence and would give in any given case a report which gives a picture from all sides. I think on a more general level I adopted through contemporary buddhist discours the picture of contemporary buddhism as a neutral instance which looks at live from all perspectives and from every available standpoint with the intention to establish a relaxed and down to earth grounding for everyday life. I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I came to know quite some educated buddhist people during my career as a meditator but even the Ph.D. physicist would snap at me when I put into question reincarnation. I think at least part of the answer for this conundrum lies in the affective part of decision. If someone is not able to reflect about his own affective move against disturbing evidence he simply ignores the disturbing part (that‘s well known). The reason for not being able to reflect on ones own cognitive dissonances (or even recognize them) and not being able to watch how they unfold into an affect might lie in a certain reasoning which rationalizes the affect before it could be watched consciously from a ,neutral standpoint‘. When the emotion in response to the disturbing evidence eventually becomes conscious it is in a way already justified by the cognitive decision and is transmutated to its propellant.

    But the reason for this seems to lie deeper then expected. It looks like that the reasoning which we do to justify our reactions to disturbing facts has to do with our evolutionary build structure. In a piece at Jonathan Haidt talks about the paper „Why Do Humans Reason?  Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,“ by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. (BTW Tom, the first part of Haidt‘s talk will give you a remarkable argument to leverage your case against contemporary american psychology)

    Haidt: „Why is the confirmation bias […] so ineradicable?  That is, why do people automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing, and why is it impossible to train them to undo that?. […] The answer, according to Mercier and Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.“ (1)

    I think this points to the possibility that our conscious reasoning might very well be influenced by extra-conscious reasons. Reasons which might lie outside the reach of consciousness – and this not only at the unconscious level known since Freud but also on a unconscious level which is located on the neurological/bio-chemical level.

    And if we are really in a sense hardwired by evolution to reason „to win arguments“ instead to reason to argument rationally, then meditation for example – as the great liberating praxis – has much more to do then calming one down. It must be supplemented by insights into the workings of the underlying structures of the consciousness. It is not longer enough to mind mind as itself (the tibetan sems nyid). It is not enough to sit and calm down. At least meditation must be something witch dissociates far enough from thought/emotion to watch thought/emotion to unfold and to watch how in a sense every thought/emotion is a decision. The problem I think is that as long as the dissociation itself is a decision it will never work.

    (1 )

  8. I just don’t get it, why some of you are so riled up about this. It’s a myth, an extended metaphor. It’s one step more symbolic than language itself.

    A similar heated discussion exists in the perennial modern anti-Christian-theology movement called atheism. Why? So you don’t believe what someone else believes. Fine. We get it. Why so angry?

  9. @Jeanne – I think the point is that nearly all Buddhists take the historicity of Shakyamuni for granted. In fact, probably nearly all Christians take the historicity of Shakyamuni for granted—they assume he was some guy who actually existed and taught some stuff they don’t necessarily agree with. Because the life-story of Shakyamuni is in mainstream non-Buddhist history books.

    Everyone knows that some people don’t believe in God; that’s an available option. Until very recently, I’d never heard anyone suggest that Shakyamuni may not have existed. In fact, I myself didn’t dare say it once I started to suspect it—and I’m pretty willing to say what I think. So this situation is not at all parallel with atheism.

    We actually don’t yet know what difference, if any, it would/will make if it became generally known that there may not have been such a guy. For me, it makes no difference; but the Buddhism I practice doesn’t rely on stuff he supposedly said.

    For someone has chosen to be a Buddhist based on “this comes straight from the mouth of an enlightened being, so we know it is true,” the lack of evidence should be important to them. And so it’s something that should become widely known.

  10. Can there be any doubt that Buddhism is, even in it’s “secular” forms, a quasi-theistic religion? People long for a father (or mother) figure. Hence: God, Mary, Jesus, Isis, Krishna, Buddha, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and on and on. It’s probably hard-wired into us on some level, this willingness to prostrate ourselves — literally and figuratively — before the alter of the Perfect One, in his/her many forms. We start life as infants and constantly seek to suck at the tits of Reassurance, long, long after we have teethed and are capable of the solid food of bewilderment, confusion, existential aloneness and self-affirmation untethered to tradition or collective identity. Give us a god, even in the absence of God!

    Let’s be frank: Most people do not have the desire, time or ability to start a deep investigation into much of anything these days — especially anything that is unlikely to make them money or advance their careers. And so we are left with people with advanced degrees (credentialed yes, but not necessarily educated) who are so stressed out and desperate for validation of their “practice” that they will reach for the Sunday School fairy tales that Bernhard’s article endorses — and she clearly endorses it even if it is to be taken “metaphorically.”

    There’s something very odd about much contemporary pop-exegesis and uncritical reception of the story of the Buddha and the conclusions he supposedly was enlightened to. Here is a man who evidently left everything behind — wife, child, kingdom and more — only to find that it’s not things in themselves which we should avoid but only becoming “attached” to them. If his life is a metaphor why go through this drawn-out story of abandonment with no reconciliation with the things he left behind? Why not allow the Buddha to go back to his palace and rule the world in wise, skillful non-attachment? Isn’t that what one would expect after listening to Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg, Pema Chodron, and the rest of the Conteporary Buddhist Superstars? Well, that’s not what the tradition handed down to us says, for starters. Then why not teach real renunciation and ask for the truly serious-minded practitioner to abandon the world, leave their families and careers behind and take up their begging bowl? The reason is obvious: That’s the Buddhism no one wants to hear, a Buddhism of renunciation and life-denial. But, alas, that is the Buddhism that is most likely to be historically close to the source, whatever that source may be. What a strange and culturally irrelevant myth the contemporary Buddhists have chosen to take up as their Salvation Story.

  11. This discussion calls to mind a short poem by Richard Wilbur, “Museum Piece,” about how we tend to domesticate and become comfortable with those things that are most challenging, to contain them in a “museum” where they can be displayed as just one more “style” or “approach” among others, which we choose from, and appreciate aesthetically, ironically, before returning to our real lives. The question posed was why intelligent and educated people refuse to apply their philosophical “sophistication” to Buddhism–and the response is to insist on treating Buddhism as a matter of opinion, a metaphor, something we can redefine at will because there is no “right” answer to anything, ever. And, at the same time, there is only one right answer, the true “historical source” Brad suggests we have lost, or, what amounts to the same thing, the insistence that the only “right” and inviolable belief is, as Jeanne says, that we have no right to take any belief seriously: as long as everyone’s belief is allowed, and nobody really means what they say, then we can stop being angry and all get along in the free market of ideas.

    This need for god, a father figure, a transcendental signifier, is “hard wired” into us, in some biological and evolutionary sense, and the only answer is to take our god as a metaphor (the one, true, metaphor, the ideological quilting point), or to renounce life all together (so, the deep down true Buddhism is really Jainism, complete “life-denial”).

    What if we DID accept that Buddhism doesn’t need a “true” historical moment of origin? What if it is a “hodge-podge” of theories about human being? If we could abandon this obsession with the tyranny of opinion, the insistence that thought must operate on the capitalist model of exchange, with no guarantee of value other than what sells, this insistence on tolerance/relativism combined with the myth of an original moment of “true” being which we are endlessly falling away from–if we could get out of this postmodern ideology so pervasive it is spontaneously spoken, today, even by those who have never read the word postmodern before–then, perhaps, we could conceive of Buddhism differently.

    What if is it a truth process, a single insight, or truth, worked out and worked toward over a span of centuries, and not yet arrived at? A truth we cannot yet demonstrate in the comfortable museum of our “knowledge”? “True” Buddhism then would not exist at all, and the only decision is whether a particular Buddhism is faithful to the truth procedure or not: does this x-Buddhism insist on the truth of anatman and pratityasamutpada? There could perfectly well be a hodge-podge, a collection of theories and practices, because this founding truth of Buddhism bears on everything, is not culturally bound. There need be no unique source of this truth, because it is true independent of any founder, any individual. Unlike Christianity, for instance, which is absolutely dependent on the uniqueness of Christ, his ability, because he is divine, to die for our sins, Buddhism’s truth requires not point of origin, because it has always already been true. And it cannot tolerate relativism, because practices that sneak an atman in at the back door reject this truth, and produce suffering. The only determinant of Buddhism, then, would not be its affinity to a source, but the evaluation of whether it works to reduce suffering for ALL sentient beings. Not me, not my family, not the suffering “individual,” but ALL beings. If it doesn’t, it isn’t faithful to the true Buddhism, it isn’t a part, an element, of the Subject/agent of Buddhism.

    Buddhism over millennia has repeatedly pushed for this radical truth, then been comfortably contained in institutions of the ruling order. We don’t need to see this insistence on a fixed and eternal truth as hard-wired into our brains. Instead, we could see a series of containment strategies that try to bring a halt to truth, like the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum physics cutting off the advance of knowledge and insisting on the inescapability of relativism and probability. The tyranny of opinion, the rejection of truth in favor of “tolerance,” is the containment strategy applied to Buddhism in America today. And the insistence that the true original Buddha be either an optional metaphor or a unique “individual” subject is, clearly, a sensitive point in this wall of containment.

  12. Glenn

    Are you ”searching for archaic authority of his own”?

    I thought you might be interested in Ajahn Sujato’s response to a question I raised with him concerning your “Nostalgia of the Buddha”. I thought you might want to make a comment on his blog (under post How Buddhist traditions are transforming – and being transformed – through their relation with Western psychology.)



    1. Geoff / Dec 6 2011 7:44 pm


    Greetings. Hope you are well.

    In your reply to Kip you make some interesting points about the interaction of politics in the formation of Buddhism. To quote you:

    “You say that traditionally Buddhism spread organically, not by ‘political correctness of the day or diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts…’ I respectfully disagree. The Buddhist Councils had an incalculable influence on the formation of Buddhism – defining the canon, rejecting heretical doctrines, judging acceptable conduct – and what are these if not ‘diktats out of conferences by self-styled experts’? And as for ‘political correctness’, the pivotal event in spreading Buddhism through India and beyond was the conversion of Ashoka….”

    My question is: might we take this one step further and consider the influence of , for example, the early Buddhist Councils on the formation of the Suttas themselves and our understanding of the Buddha?
    I would be interested in your thoughts on Glenn Wallis’ suggestions for the possible formation of our understanding of the Buddha? Might this be plausible? (from his article “Nostalgia for the Buddha”)

    “The first task of any religious teacher’s followers, whether in Greece, Rome, Arabia, India, or the United States is twofold: to propagate and to preserve the teachings. The decisive importance of the former goal, however, drastically impacts the latter. That is, propagation is a Darwinian struggle of competition and adaptation; and the very engagement in this struggle shapes the form of the preservation. Spreading the teachings required that Gotama’s followers successfully contend with fierce competition from several quarters. The most crucial—and ruthless—struggle centered on patronage. Without the support of the leading figures in society, a community had no chance of survival. Patronage involved not only financial and material support, but social prestige. The latter was particularly important for a community such as Gotama’s, which challenged the orthodoxy of the day. There was also the struggle with rival teachers and hostile sects, who made claims—and held out promises—for their teachings that were different from, and more attractive than, Gotama’s. Buddhist literature is full of evidence of such struggles. The literature also reveals the extraordinary internal tensions that arose from the need to maintain unity and morale. Soon enough, moreover, Gotama’s community had to meet these enormous challenges bereft of its charismatic teacher.

    A common strategy, then as now, in this struggle for recognition is to cast the teacher’s sayings, discourses, dialogues, lectures, random utterances, and so on, as “sacred” or “religious” literature. I call a text “religious” if it or its proponents claim for the work’s origin and contents some special quality, possessed by the originator, that is fundamentally non-natural, and hence, categorically unavailable to the common person.

    As far as I know, there is no cult of Mozart. We see him as a musical genius, yes. But no one seriously claims that his music was divinely inspired, that is, that it derived from anything but human capacities. If we do speak of Mozart’s achievement in religious terms (it is transcendent, sacred, holy, revelatory, otherworldly, etc.), we do so figuratively, poetically, in an attempt to match language to a breathtaking natural achievement.

    I contend that Gotama’s followers (and perhaps Gotama himself) made a conscious decision to cast his teachings in overtly religious terms. Such an alteration—from secular, naturalistic, and commonsensical to sectarian, supernatural, and super-sensual—required that the teachings’ custodians combine the central teachings with particular adornments. These adornments—frames, conceits, rhetorical structures, supernatural interlocutors, awe-inspiring miracles, extra-sensory perception—tip off the reader or hearer to the uncanny, even daemonic, power of the teachings. At the very least, such adornments demand attention, inspire confidence, and make a compelling case. Only in this manner could Gotama’s community win the patronage necessary for prospering.”


    o sujato / Dec 7 2011 9:01 am

    Hi Geoff,

    Yes, I don’t have any problem with what Glenn is saying here. Clearly all these things are used to evoke a sense of awe and authority. This much has been obvious since the first generations of Buddhist scholars in the 19th century. There’s a fascinating perspective on the notion of archaic authority in Julian Jaynes’ ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’. At the very least we can say that the need for archaic authority is a fundamental part of human psychology, one that is at the basis of all religious institutions. Of course, it should go without saying that Glenn Wallis is searching for archaic authority of his own, in his re-imagined Buddha fashioned in his own image according to his own methods…

    The point is not that this is right or wrong, but that it is part of how our minds operate. There are good reasons for this: it means we don’t abandon the wisdom of the past. The apparatus of archaic authority has made human culture possible, as we do not have to learn everything from scratch every generation.

    It’s interesting to see how this is happening now we have the cult of Ajahn Chah. Over the years, since I first arrived at Wat Nanachat, I have seen the gradual progression as this adopts all the canonical requisites of a devotional cult. Building a stupa, attendance of royalty, making statues, relics (including digging up Ajahn Chah’s toilet in search of relics – yes, it’s a thing), institution of periodical celebrations, the increasing canonization of the literature (formerly cheap and hand-made, now in deluxe hardcover editions). All the standard ways of keeping memory alive, which have been used countless times in human culture, with surprisingly little variation.

    A few years ago, we had a person suffering from schizophrenia here at Santi. In one of his acts of ‘divine’ madness, he took most of the relics from our shrine and threw them in the forest. Our shrine was desecrated, but our bush was sanctified; and his act of destruction, wiping out one source of archaic authority, opened a space for something new…

  13. Interestingly, David Chapman just did a post called “How not to argue about Buddhism” and in the comments, I added the fallacy of “Appeal to Misleading Authority” which many Buddhists use. This post takes it a step further, cutting to the core.

    Interestingly, I think their are Christians that have accepted that Jesus was mythologized without any significant flesh-and-blood left to crucify and yet still remain Christians — they have found ways to make that work. I think everyone seeks a hero and are willing to make any number of cognitive sacrifices to make that work.

  14. No problem for me if there was no true original Buddha–similar to the child who cares little upon learning there is no true Santa Claus, as long as the packages still appear under the tree…
    But who knows? What if the “Blessed One”, by leaving zero historical evidence of his existence, is in fact his last great teaching on anatman?

  15. Thank you, everyone, for your comments. I wish I could give each of you the detailed reply that you deserve. Sometimes I can; but sometimes there is too much keeping me from that. Then time passes, and new things emerge. When I comment on other blogs and get only a slight reply, I feel, well, slighted; and then I think that no response is better than a half-hearted one. Anyway, I can tell you that I carefully read and think about every single word that appears in the comments.

    Here are some brief thoughts related to the comments on the “Ghost Buddha” post.

    I think that Tom’s (comment 1) distinction between “understanding X” and “thinking X” is crucial. It gives us a helpful tool, too, for reading the comments on this blog, indeed on this very page. What I mean is that many of the comments—or at least parts of comments—reveal the former without the latter. It is one thing to say, “yes, I understand that we can’t establish the historicity of the Buddha,” but quite another to think through the ramifications of this understanding. The Bill-Clinton-like compartmentalization of western monks, like Sujato continues to amaze me, Geoff (comment 13). The comments of Sujato that you shared with us (thanks for that) exemplify, in my mind, this understanding-thinking divide. And, to answer your question, no, I am not searching for an archaic authority of my own. Sujato says, “it should go without saying that Glenn Wallis is searching for archaic authority of his own, in his re-imagined Buddha fashioned in his own image according to his own methods.” I accept that that statement is fair for “Buddhist Manifesto,” but not for the article Sujato is referring to (“Nostalgia for the Buddha”), and certainly not for my current project. Why the change in view. THINKING THROUGH MY UNDERSTANDING! Think, and there will be ramifications. Interestingly, Sujato like Matthias (comment 8), says there may be a built-in an evolutionary structure to fend off unwanted results from thinking. Matthias takes it further, though. He helpfully gives a personal example of the “possibility that our conscious reasoning might very well be influenced by extra-conscious reasons.” Maybe, in Matthias’s terms, the distinction between understanding and thinking is related to that between reasoning as a tool of effective argumentation (understanding) and reasoning as a tool for arriving at some irrefutable knowledge (thinking). And in that comment, I see a relation to Tom’s comments about ideology. I hope we will all continue to make more explicit the ideological nature of archetype-authorities like “the Buddha.” It is precisely as archetype-exemplar that “the Buddha’s” qualities—fictional though they may be—become measuring sticks for human being (hence, “Buddhists shouldn’t get angry:” I get that crap, too). I hope, too, that Tom will continue to articulate the insidious nature of this mechanism, as his comment on literature indicates. But, in his comment, I hear another valuation of all of this as well. It comes from his question: “why can’t the subject ‘Buddha’ be a centuries-long combination of institutions and practices?” This approach could indeed represent a way forward. Stephen’s comment (comment 4), as is Stephen’s way, cuts to the core of the matter, I think, when he says that “few make it through the veil of myth,” since they largely attached to that myth for the very relief it provides. I also see too much evidence of the human disease reificitis. Danny’s (intriguing, perceptive, and funny) comment (comment 15), that the disappearance of the Buddha into historical oblivion “is in fact his last great teaching on anatman” is a good place to begin such a “Subject Biography.” Why will write it for us? It’s a great idea. But, to answer Tom’s question, no, the publishers wanted the usual blessed-out drivel. Before abandoning the thing, though, I rewrote my (non-)data in a fictional format. (It sucked.) Jayarava’s comment (comment 6), too, addresses this point. What he says about “metaphor blindness” indicates, to me at least, the near impossibility of something like a “Subject Buddha.” Metaphors do indeed promote insight; but they also blind. Jayarava’s comment on the power of anthropomorphism on cognition and emotion is echoed in one form of another throughout these comments.

    David’s (thanks for dropping by!) question (comment 2), “wouldn’t it be interesting if the pattern of attributing new teachings to hagiographized invented saints started from the beginning,” can, I think, go a long way in explaining the nature if textual-institutional-doctrinal dupery. And I would want to shout out, as Matthias does, and ask How the hell can Buddhists continue to disregard all the (non-)evidence? Again, what would honest and unavoidable ramifications of such regard be? What would a Buddhism minus what David calls “transcendental authority” look like? Would it be as “uninspiring” as David finds the very source of the classical teachings—the Pali canon? (David: why not write up your “speculations about what actually happened and when”? If it doesn’t fit on your blog, I’d host it here. Note the word “speculative” in my title!)

    Toni’s response (comment 5) to Stephen points to the circular and coercive nature of the matter, as I see it. “Dukkha” is a power noun that implicates the believer in what I call the “voltaic network of postulation” that is “Buddhism” (see my article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism”). It—“dukkha”—is not an obvious human phenomenon. “Pain,” on the other hand, is. But “pain” allows specification that permits knowledge derived from outside of any given lock on the matter (such as “Buddhism”). We can consult, for instance, biology, psychology, even psychosomatic medicine for help in understanding “pain.” Not so with “dukkha.” Only “Buddhism” knows about that. And therein lies a world of difference. (We could say the same for Toni’s terms “path to liberation” and “extinguish.”) I would like to hear what Toni makes of Brad’s comment, particularly his paragraph that begins, “There’s something very odd about much contemporary pop-exegesis and uncritical reception of the story of the Buddha.”

    Jeanne: I hope you will continue to ask “why?” (comment 9). I think there is, in fact, something to “get” here. Maybe what that is doesn’t, or won’t, interest you. But you can’t know what it is until you do some very hard work. That may sound pedantic. And it’s not untrue. I don’t detect any anger here. (Not that I devalue anger.) Spice, maybe, heat? I don’t know what you’re hearing; but I hope you’ll stick around a while.

    I would like to see someone pursue Brad’s question (comment 11): “Can there be any doubt that Buddhism is, even in its ‘secular’ forms, a quasi-theistic religion?” Might you, Brad, be interested? Your comment, taken with Tom’s response to it (comment 12), is, in my eyes, the beginning of a valuable piece exploring what I think is emerging as an undoubtedly “quasi-theistic” (quasi, at the least) secular Buddhism. Are they undergoing the similar process alluded to by Sabio (comment 14)? If so, what he refers to as “cognitive sacrifices” would figure prominently, I would think, in the exploration. In any case: More, please! (Maybe a Brad-Tom collaboration?)

    Thank you all! I am inspired by your contributions.

  16. Glenn — You said this in your note to me: It—“dukkha”—is not an obvious human phenomenon. “Pain,” on the other hand, is. But “pain” allows specification that permits knowledge derived from outside of any given lock on the matter (such as “Buddhism”). We can consult, for instance, biology, psychology, even psychosomatic medicine for help in understanding “pain.” Not so with “dukkha.” Only “Buddhism” knows about that. And therein lies a world of difference.

    I don’t agree with this. I write about dukkha for an audience that includes mostly people who don’t consider themselves Buddhists (they read my pieces because we share chronic illness). Many are Christians and Jews. When I describe dukkha as it is put forth in the suttas, for example, the Buddha saying, “Dukkha, monks, is not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want,” these people recognize that in their own lives and tell me that it is as concrete and vivid an experience as physical pain. So, I don’t think that dukkha is confined to Buddhist thought even though others may not know one-word used in the suttas to describe what they experience as dissatisfaction with the circumstances of their lives.

    I see no point in responding to Brad since he saw my piece as an “uncritical reception of the story of the Buddha.” I did not consider it “uncritical” (I have studied the suttas carefully) and felt he was questioning my intellect. I don’t feel there’s anything I could say that would lead him to change his mind about me. By the way, according to the suttas, the Buddha did return and “square” things with his family.

  17. Toni Bernhard: My apologies if I came off a bit overly harsh in my comment; I do not question your intelligence in the least. Intelligence does not grant us total immunity from uncritical, or not sufficiently critical, views, however. My general impression in the western dharma scene is that almost nothing gets questioned out of fear of disrespect to the “dharma” – or perhaps a fear that if one questions too much the whole ship will go down and one will have to just stop meditating and be miserable or something. I view Glenn’s blog here as an important place for people to talk about their frustrations with the contemporary western Buddhist scene, and perhaps come up with new ways of looking at things in the hope for a more relevant, reality-based Weltanschauung. Sometimes, in the course of doing this, people swear and raise their voice. I blame the beer. (Damn you, Glenn: what’s the alcohol content of this stuff you’re brewing?)

    The myth you cite in your article rarely is seen except through the lens of the unquestioning believer in the salvific power of the “dharma” and the hagiographized story of the “Buddha.” Some people understand it literally, which is quite astonishing considering the story’s rather incredible features; e.g. the idea that a person in ancient India could be shielded from all evidence of sickness, old-age and death well into adulthood is extremely improbable. Even taken as a complete myth, however, this story is not above critique.

    I cannot help but conclude that there is a strong undercurrent of rejection of the material world in this Buddhist myth – and in all of Buddhism. Note that I say “strong undercurrent.” I do not mean to say that “all” of Buddhism is life-denying, only that it is all too easily (and accurately?) interpreted and practiced in this way. As one former monastic told me, many monks he knew didn’t see any point to this life and viewed the whole project of Buddhism as escape into post-mortem nirvanic bliss. Further evidence of this life-denial and reliance on an otherworldly solution to “dukkha” is seen in Thanissaro Bhikku’s article about the very same story you cite in your article.

    This view of Buddhism is in stark contrast to that of most western Buddhist teachers who emphasize engagement with this world. But then why do these same teachers go on citing this story of the “Buddha” who, instead of effectively managing his previous royal and familial commitments, rejects engagement with the world and “drops out”, to paraphrase Thanissaro above? That is what I find so curious. If they were consistent they would either encourage people to truly reject the world and become monks and nuns, or they would reject this little story penned by Asvaghosa. Or perhaps, if they were truly creative and daring, they would refashion the story and have the Buddha go back to his family and palace, father more children and rule his kingdom wisely! It is an ahistorical myth, after all. Why not give it a new, more relevant, twist?

    The reason they do not do this is fear: fear they will upset their western audience by promoting a celibate course of mendicancy, or fear of upsetting this same audience by telling them that Buddhism is not exactly what they think it is. They want it both ways: to gain authority by citing tradition, as well as to sell their books and tell their western audiences they don’t need to really reject much of anything in life, but only to consume and compete and fuck “mindfully.” Do you not see this whopping contradiction?

    David Chapman touches on this topic in the following blog post which is worth a look:

    Again, Toni, I’m not attacking you. The point of this whole thread is not to offend anyone, but to try and challenge the all-too-tidy world of tradition and dogma that doesn’t really work once you probe beneath the surface. My best to you!

  18. Glenn,

    Again, kudos to a fascinating discussion. Let me gather my thoughts about some of the points of tension I find in “secular Buddhism” and get back to you in a couple days. Life outside of the blogosphere beckons me at the moment. 🙂


  19. Glenn:

    If you have an hour to spare, I strongly recommend you take a look at this video of a lecture by Gregory Schopen, entiteld “The Buddha as a Businessman: Economics and Law in an Old Indian Religion” ( He makes a number of surprising, yet well documented arguments, and closes with some very germane thoughts on what it would mean to understand “the real Buddha” or “the historical Buddha”.

  20. Well, I can’t do Schopen justice here, but the short version is that there is a large body of often-overlooked evidence (both scriptural and archaeological) which indicates that the early Indian Buddhist sangha was modeled after commercial guilds, and was involved in many functions that we would now consider the domain of banks (i.e., lending at interest.) Furthermore, the Buddha (as portrayed by the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, for example) was an able and experienced businessman and lawyer, interested in (among other things) creating tax shelters, managing wealth, and advertising.

    After patiently laying all of this out, he closes with the following:

    “What then are we to make of all that we have seen? If we are trying to understand how other people in other times saw things, and that I hope is a key part of the conversation that we call the humanities, then it will not do to simply invoke the distinct possibility that the Buddha we have seen is a Buddha that was constructed by the Buddhist tradition centuries after “the real Buddha” lived. This will only tell us how we see things, not how the Buddhists who used these texts, who did not share our faith in historical criticism, or our obsessions with chronology and origins, did. “The real Buddha”, for early Buddhists in India, could not have been the one that modern historical scholarship has reconstructed, but would have to have been the one, or ones, they encountered in their texts, and at their shrines, and we need to recover each one of these figures, one of which was the Buddha as a businessman.”

  21. Excellent, Michael!! Fascinating — now I really do want to watch it.

    If that is true, then something else it can suggest is that the Buddhas we have today (people to tell us, or encourage disciples to believe they are enlightened or special) are also, not surprisingly, involved in marketing and business — Budddha-Business. It helps us to realize that what we got today, probably ain’t too different from days-gone-by. Alas, myths are so much more beautiful — and eventually disappointing.

    Thanx for the synopsis

  22. Answers to your questions, from a Zen student of 25 years or so …

    “So, here’s my question: Why, given their ostensible sophistication, do contemporary x-buddhists cling so stubbornly (ignorantly? something else?) to a naïve understanding of the very nature of the texts and teachings from which they derive so much authority for their lives?”

    I’m not sure to which Buddhists or texts you refer. The historical Buddha who may or may not have existed is thought to have spoken the words recorded in the Sutta pitika and Vinaya pitika of the Pali Canon, which is venerated by Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhist generally don’t spend much time with the Pali texts, and most Mahayana sutras were written long after the Buddha died by unknown authors. It doesn’t matter who wrote them, since they don’t take their authority from their authorship. Some parts of the Nichiren school no longer regard the historical Buddha as authoritative at all.

    My first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori, once told us there is no evidence the historical Buddha ever existed, but ultimately that doesn’t matter whether he did or not, because the truth of the dharma is re-discovered in every generation.

    Keep in mind that when Buddhists speak of “Buddha” they aren’t necessarily referring to the historical Buddha. More often Buddha is an icon or embodiment of enlightenment itself, or of the ground of existence. There are several iconic or archetypal buddhas representing many things. In most schools you don’t have to believe in them literally. But they all get called “Buddha,” which I think is part of what is confusing you.

    As a rule: In Theravada Buddhism, “the Buddha” is the historical Buddha, but in Mahayana Buddhism, unless the speaker specifically says “the historical Buddha,” most of the time he’s talking about another one.

    “Another question (added 12-5-11): How would your reception of Buddhism be affected if you saw it as a hodge-podge of often disconnected ideas and theories about human being (which it is)?”

    I realize it probably seems random and disconnected if you’ve studied it only superficially, but in fact all the teachings are tightly interconnected and support each other. The deeper you go into it, the more apparent this is. My understanding is that most scholarly historians believe the teachings really are the work of one person, for this reason, although of course we know nothing about the historical Buddha because his life story has been so mythologized.

    To Michael Dorftman — I know the historical arguments to which you refer, but the original monastics were forbidden to handle money, which I think makes the argument a bit weird. The first big sectarian blow-up in Buddhism occurred ca. 2nd or 3rd century BCE and involved the very issue of money handling by monastics, as one part of the order decided to relax the rule, and the traditionalists weren’t having it. The argument that the monks might have been money lenders doesn’t hold water.

  23. @Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien: I’m aware (and, more to the point, Schopen is certainly aware) of the Vinaya prohibitions on handling money. I suggest you take a look at Schopen’s evidence, which is drawn from a variety of sources, both textual (such as the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya) and archaeological (such as inscriptions on buildings, coins, and the like.) It may indeed be the case that some sects forbid monks from handling money; other sects more or less required it. There’s no particular reason to believe that the prohibitionists represent a more original or authentic tradition, and even if they did, it does not mean that we should overlook the dissenting traditions.

    You really ought to watch the Schopen video, if these matters interest you. It’s a great lecture.

  24. Gosh. To suggest that Glenn has “studied Buddhism only superficially” is… Gosh. Sorry, I can’t find an adjective here, I’m speechless.

    Just to save you from the embarrassment that might result from your likely next move, I’d suggest you check to see whether he has meditated much before asserting otherwise.

    People may disagree with you, despite having read and meditated quite a bit.

  25. Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien:

    You have a good point here, and I think Schopen’s argument ultimately is not convincing. He uses some clever rhetorical strategies to appeal to his audience, but clearly he is talking about the institutional Mahayana Buddhism of at least 4 centuries after the time of the supposed Gautama Buddha. The Pali canon is clear on the point of not handling money, and seems to suggest that very early Buddhism, arising at a time when the very idea of money and exchange value was first becoming common, took a strong stance against it, seeing it as a source of delusion. In the institution of Buddhism, this stand doesn’t seem to have lasted long. Schopen repeatedly insists there is no way to reconstruct a “true” Buddha, but for rhetorical purposes speaks as if the “true” Buddha is the one that appears in 2nd-century vinayana texts. What those practicing in an institution “thought” is, for him, clearly more “historically relevant” than any “muddle-headed” (I think that was his term) philosophical “truths.”

    I don’t think anybody here is “confused” about the various uses of the term “Buddha.” However, I for one have frequently encountered Buddhists who absolutely take the mythic “life of the Buddha” quite literally. Even at Zen Mountain Monastery. It isn’t very uncommon. And even those who accept the “metaphoric” nature of the Buddha story will quite often insist on a “true” or “original” Buddhism, as you do when you say that the teachings, understood “deeply,” are all interconnected and so the work of one person. There are many, many teachings that are absolutely irreconcilable, if we consider all times and schools of Buddhism—and so you are appealing to a “deep” and “interconnected” truth, which must, I’m supposing, exclude those texts that don’t come from this “one person,” who you suggest existed but is screened by his mythology. How do you reconcile this with the Mahayana position you state, that the existence of the Buddha is immaterial because many “Buddhist” truths were written by others, centuries after the origin of Buddhism?

    The issues here, for both you and for Schopen, seems to me to be an insistence on rejecting the “historical” Buddha, only to then insisting on recovering a “true” or “real” Buddha. We can “understand” that any “original Buddha” is unavailable to us, but we cannot “think” Buddhism without some single unique individual at its source. Your true Buddha is the Mahayana tradition, his is historical and economic institutions.

    I would suggest a different approach. We can see the >subject Buddha< as existing across centuries, a subjective agency insistent on a particular philosophical, NOT institutional, truth. Contra Schopen, philosophical truths are absolutely relevant, whether they gave rise to profitable institutions or not, and whether they can be traced to an original individual speaker or not. If pratityasamutpada is true, it is true for all time and in all cultures, not only for pre-BCE northern India. Certain truths are culturally bound (the United States, for instance, really exists, but would cease to exist if no human being thought it did), but others are not susceptible to historicization. I take it, Ms. O’Brien, that you would agree with this position, as unfashionably anti-postmodern as it may be? You surely think Buddhist thought has advanced some truths that are accessible to us, in our culture, and can be reconfirmed by us, in thought and practice? This, I think, is the source of disagreement with Schopen; his whole argument implies that the only truth is historical truth. In short, Schopen has much to say about the history of Buddhist institutions, but nothing useful to say at all about the real possibilities of Buddhist thought.

    Instead of “original Buddha” vs. “distorted Buddha,” maybe a better debate would be between the philosophical advances of Buddhist thought and the institutionalization of Buddhism, between Buddhism as a subject of truth and as an institution of containment.

    Brad: I think you are misreading the talk by Thanissaro Bikkhu you mentioned in post 18. He does quite clearly say that "life is meaningless," but he is not suggesting an "other-worldly" solution, a sort of "suffer enough to make it to nirvana next time" approach. Life is meaningless simply in the sense that we have no other-worldly purpose of destination, and so no eternal vantage point from which to interpret it and give it meaning.

  26. “Just to save you from the embarrassment that might result from your likely next move, I’d suggest you check to see whether he has meditated much before asserting otherwise.

    “People may disagree with you, despite having read and meditated quite a bit.”

    There’s a great deal more to BUddhism than meditation, and reading gives you only a second-hand impression.
    I can tell from the post that the author is unacquainted with many aspects of Buddhism. I’d say the same thing here that I addressed to John Horgan — if you’re going to criticize Buddhism, learn about it first.

  27. “You have a good point here, and I think Schopen’s argument ultimately is not convincing. He uses some clever rhetorical strategies to appeal to his audience, but clearly he is talking about the institutional Mahayana Buddhism of at least 4 centuries after the time of the supposed Gautama Buddha.”

    Yes. Thank you.

    “However, I for one have frequently encountered Buddhists who absolutely take the mythic ‘life of the Buddha’ quite literally. Even at Zen Mountain Monastery. It isn’t very uncommon.”

    Really? I was a student of Daido’s and ZMM for ten years (1988 to 1998, roughly) and in those ten years I don’t recall running into anyone who believed in the mythic life of the Buddha literally. However, sometimes we all speak of the myths to recall their allegorical meaning, and we don’t always say, hey, we don’t mean this literally; we’re speaking mythologically (a la Joseph Campbell).. It’s kind of assumed. Maybe you misunderstood.

    “There are many, many teachings that are absolutely irreconcilable, if we consider all times and schools of Buddhism—and so you are appealing to a “deep” and “interconnected” truth, which must, I’m supposing, exclude those texts that don’t come from this “one person,” who you suggest existed but is screened by his mythology. How do you reconcile this with the Mahayana position you state, that the existence of the Buddha is immaterial because many “Buddhist” truths were written by others, centuries after the origin of Buddhism?”

    The historical Buddha realized something that already was, and is, and came up with a basic path of practice so that people can realize that which he realized for themselves. And through the years others who have had that same realization have written about what they realized, to help others realize it. So it doesn’t much matter who wrote it, if the text points to the same realization. From the Mahayana perspective, Buddha is our essential nature, so in a sense it’s all Buddhas teaching Buddhas.

    Keep in mind that bodhi, or suchness, itself in ineffable, so anything you say about it is conditional and relative. Until we begin to wake up we’re all blind men feeling an elephant, so to speak.

    But I was speaking of the basic doctrines of the historical Buddha, which all are built on the Four Noble Truths and support and reinforce each other. So you go from the Four Noble Truth to the Eightfold Path, and in support of that you learn about the Five Skandhas, the Precepts, the Paramitas, Dependent Origination, Anatta, Karma, etc. And they all tie back to the Four Noble Truths. The deeper you go into this, the more you see the interconnection. So I’m not sure how anyone could say the historical Buddha’s teachings are a “hodge-podge of often disconnected ideas and theories.”

    There’s arguing from authority and arguing from authority. Nobody has to accept that what the historical Buddha taught is true just because he said it. He wasn’t a god. But if you are going to argue that he taught X, Y, or Z, or that his teachings are a disconnected hodge podge with no internal logic, then you really need to acquaint yourself with what he taught. Because even if you think what he taught is rubbish, it still has a very strong internal logic and interconnection.

    Regarding “original” Buddhism — IMO, that’s a bugaboo of academics and posers. I don’t know practitioners who spin their wheels over it. Certainly Buddhism has evolved, and continues to evolve. As long as we’re still going back to the Four Noble Truths and the Dharma Seals, that’s OK. Ultimately the historical Buddha didn’t do much but to point to the moon and say, look. We’ve all still got to see it for ourselves.

    If you are interested in how Buddhism is adapting to modernity, check out “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” by David McMahan (Oxford University Press, 2008). He documents that institutional Buddhism has changed a lot just in the past 150 years.

  28. Thanks for your reply, and I really should be getting back to grading papers, but . . .

    I absolutely agree that there are “truths,” that, although they must always be expressed in conventional terms are nonetheless transcendently true, that is, they were always true whether we could “know” it or not.

    There’s quite a contradiction, however, in dismissing concern for the historical Buddha and then insisting that anyone who sees the teaching of this nonexistent person as illogical should get “acquaint[ed]” with what “he taught.” If he doesn’t exist, or is hopelessly and irretrievably buried beneath myth and historical accretions, how could we know what he really taught? My point is simply that you insist the historical Buddha is irrelevant, but seem to take great offense at the suggestion that he was not a single person whose logical and insight are beyond reproach. “Original Buddhism’ is a waste of time, but a true Buddhism, what the real Buddha really taught, is not? Why not just accept that perhaps a lot of the best insights in Buddhist thought occurred not in one brain, but across a range of time in the Buddhist practice of thousands of different individuals? You say that Buddha is a myth, but you are powerfully attached to the idea of a single unique individual who had all the insights at once. Would it be so terrible if the guy who started the whole Buddhist ball rolling was really just a charismatic huckster looking for a following? There are still enormously important philosophical truths (in my opinion) in Buddhist thought, and that should be the focus.

    Your insistence that the true Buddhism is a matter of finding a coherent and verifiable set of concepts and practices to reduce suffering is perfectly supportable without the attachment to the ideological trappings. There IS a hodge-podge of contradictory writing in the canon of Buddhist literature. Some of it may need to be ignored to make sense of things. There’s no point in also insisting on the “basic doctrines of the historical Buddha.”

    And as for Zen Mountain Monastery, I have never been an insider there, I was only there twice. When a couple of “students” at the monastery were intently discussing whether Buddha became enlightened because of his mother dying, being raised in luxury, etc., I suggested that of course those are just standard myths of the time. They made it clear that they had not patience with those who doubted the historical truth of the Buddha. They were students, and perhaps learned better, but still, it is a common belief.

  29. Barbara. Thank you for offering your views. I hope you’ll have some time soon to read at least the heuristic section of my article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.” The reason I recommend that piece to you is that your comments here exemplify many of the postulates I formulate there. I think you might come to see your comments in a different light if you read what I say about, for instance: buddhemes; The Dharma; ideological suspicion; ventriloquism; voltaic network of postulation; decision; thaumaturgical refuge; vibrato. If nothing else, I hope you can read about “decision.” Perhaps reading my recent article will not change your perspective at all; but it will at least give you a sense of the direction of this blog in general and of “Ghost Buddha” in particular. In short, I am interested in identifying what I call “syntactical” features of x-buddhistic discourse. Specific terms of argument–as you present here–don’t interest me. Why not? Because the heuristic already predicts the form that the x-buddhistic argument will take. Given the decisional syntax that I identify, the specifics–the terms that can be dropped into the general form–are endless (hence, the term x-buddhistic).

  30. Tom Pepper: [Schopen] is talking about the institutional Mahayana Buddhism of at least 4 centuries after the time of the supposed Gautama Buddha. The Pali canon is clear on the point of not handling money, and seems to suggest that very early Buddhism, arising at a time when the very idea of money and exchange value was first becoming common, took a strong stance against it, […]

    I just want to clear up a few historical points here. First of all, Schopen is not, to the best of my knowledge, speaking about specifically Mahāyāna monasteries here– in fact, it would be quite odd if he were, because even in Xuanzang’s time, many monasteries contained followers of Mahāyāna alongside non-followers. (Walser’s book Nāgārjuna in Context covers the rise of Mahāyāna in a monastic setting in Early Indian Buddhism quite nicely.)

    Second: the fact that the Pāli canon was opposed to handling money does not mean that this is somehow the “original” position. The fact that the Pāli canon has survived intact (and has been translated into English) should not blind us to the fact that it was only one of many competing canons; we have two other vinaya lineages which conflict with it on many points (such as the handling of money), and as all of these canons were written down after the time of the archaeological inscriptions Schopen calls upon, we have no way of knowing which positions are closer to that of “the historical Buddha.”

    Even if we were to accept that the Pāli canon did/i> represent “the historical Buddha”, we should not (and this is Schopen’s key point) consider this to be dispositive; there were still large numbers of Buddhists following alternate paths that they thought represented “the real Buddha”, and it is important for us (as historians, and readers of history) to hear and understand their voices.

  31. @ Barbara (honorable) Hoetsu
    That was excellent timing. I don’t know if you have read David Chapman’s recent post about How not to argue about Buddhism but, as he alluded to in his comment above, you have demonstrate his post’s points very well. And likewise, Glenn’s recent post on Nascent Non-Buddhism uses uncharacteristicly short poeto-prose to illustrate a genre you have enthusiastically enlivened for us.

  32. Michael,

    You’re completely missing my point. I’m not concerned with whether the Pali Canon represents the “historical” or “original” Buddha. My point is that Schopen is assuming that institutional Buddhism is the “true” Buddhism, and that what he calls “muddle headed metaphysics” has nothing to do with real Buddhism. I would prefer to privilege the production of philosophical insights (and for me, the insight that “exchange value” is a source of delusion is an important one), over the institutional containments of those insights (which Schopen sees as far more “historically important”).

    To borrow Glenn’s terms, Schopen’s syntactical structure is homologous to that of the x-Buddhists. He begins with the assumption that economic and institutional activity is “real,” and philosophical insights are “imaginary” (doesn’t he use the term “in our imaginations” to refer to any reconstruction of the conceptual ideal of Buddhism?). From within his own frame of reference, his argument is completely self-reinforcing and produces ideology of which he seems to be completely unaware. If we were to follow the implications of his decision to the end, we would be left with the human animal as a thoroughly economic creature, with no capacity whatsoever for agency, completely determined by the development of economic institutions, with the universality of exchange value as the only agentive power in history. I doubt Schopen knows (or would agree) he is producing a reactionary capitalist ideology in the guise of historical research. My guess is he would probably not want to reject any capacity for agency. But from within his decisional syntax, he is doing this without knowing it.

    I don’t know if he is talking about “specifically” Mahayana Buddhist institutions, and that is not the point. And it is hugely useful to see what kinds of containment strategies were used to tame and domesticate the radical insights of Buddhist thought. My point is that we do not need to make Schopens mistake of assuming that the historically practices Buddhism is the “truth” of Buddhism. It may appear more modern and scientific, but it is no different than accepting the myth of Buddha as literally true.

    I hope I’m being clearer here. I was bit tired when I wrote that post, and perhaps it was hard to follow.


  33. At the risk of seeming a perseverating lunatic (although perhaps that ship has sailed), I want to add some thoughts to my comment above.

    Schopen claims that if we want to uncover the “real” historical Buddha, we will have to recognize that “Buddha was a Businessman.” Now, clearly this is a rhetorical flourish meant to entertain his audience. Clearly Schopen is aware that the records he cites are from hundreds of years after Buddhism as a social practice began, and that the businessman Buddha depicted in the Vinaya is a later construct, meant to justify and regulate certain economic practices. So, perhaps it seems unfair to criticize him for what is clearly meant humorously.

    However, his approach does exactly suggest that the “real” Buddha was, and could not have been other than, a “businessman.” Suggesting that what we can know of Buddhism, and all that is important to know, is how it was institutionalized, is to insist that economic practices are all that have ever shaped human destiny; ultimately, this depends on the assumption that money and exchange value are the only transcendent truth, the only thing that shapes human history. It becomes inconceivable, in this view, that there could ever NOT have been exchange value, just as it is inconceivable that we could ever do without it. We are doomed to capitalism because it is natural and eternal, and all we can do is study the various economic institutions that have been used to attach human beings to this one true agent of history.

    This rejection of the philosophical thought of Buddhism in favor of how Buddhism was “really” practiced is absurd. Imagine, if you will, that all of Freud’s texts were completely obliterated, lost for all time. Would it be useful to insist that the “real” Freud was the stupid, reductive misrepresentation of psychoanalysis presented in hundreds of undergraduate psychology textbooks and taught to millions upon millions of college students? Wouldn’t it be better to look to Otto Fenichel or Jacques Lacan to try to recover some of the real truths that Freud produced, instead of assuming that since they aren’t commonly understood, aren’t part of the institution of psychology, they are purely imaginary, less real, and irrelevant?

    I wrote earlier that Schopen’s decisional structure is homologous to those who accept the mythical Buddha. Perhaps it would be better to say it is a complement to it. To use, once again, Badiou’s concept of the subject, they are (respectively) the reactionary and the obscurantist subject. In Badiou’s thought, the “event” insists on and enable the production of a truth beyond all presently existing systems of knowledge. The reactionary subject resists this truth by insisting that the event never happened, that things have always gone on in just the same way, that the supposed “truth” is irrelevant to what really happens in history, and cannot change anything. The obscurantist subject, on the other hand, insists that the event took place, but refuses to allow the development of its implications; the obscurantist will hold to a dogmatic insistence on some “original” truth which we have fallen away from, instead of allowing the effects of the truth to empower agency.

    What I am arguing for is what Badiou calls the “faithful” subject, a subject faithful to the truth that exceeds all present forms of knowledge. This subject is not some “original” Buddha. And, it struggles endlessly against the attempts to contain it within institutions and “knowledge.” This >subject-Buddha< would not be some individual, but a whole centuries-long process of Buddhist practice and philosophy, attempting to force this truth into appearance, and repeatedly contained, tamed, and domesticated in “knowledge.”

    Now I really need to stop stalling, and get back to grading papers.

  34. Tom Pepper:Schopen claims that if we want to uncover the “real” historical Buddha, we will have to recognize that “Buddha was a Businessman.”

    No, Tom, that’s not at all what Schopen is claiming. In fact, that’s a serious mischaracterization of his position.

    Schopen is claiming that there is no one “real” historical Buddha; rather, there have been a large number of conceptions of “the Real Buddha” held by Buddhists in various times and places, and that we should not overlook this fact and consider only “the Real Buddha” uncovered by our contemporary textual-critical methods.

    Tom:Clearly Schopen is aware that the records he cites are from hundreds of years after Buddhism as a social practice began, and that the businessman Buddha depicted in the Vinaya is a later construct, meant to justify and regulate certain economic practices.

    Schopen is clearly aware that all historical records of Buddhism are from hundreds of years after Buddhism as a social practice began; we have absolutely no written records from the pre-Ashokan period. The businessman Buddha depicted in the Vinaya is a later construct to precisely the same degree that the “don’t-handle-money Buddha” depicted in competing Vinayas is a later construct. In fact, Prebish and Nattier have made a (persuasive, in my opinion) case that the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya is in fact the earliest Vinaya, and that the Sthaviravāda/Theravāda Vinaya represents a later effort, adding new restrictions.

    Tom:Would it be useful to insist that the “real” Freud was the stupid, reductive misrepresentation of psychoanalysis presented in hundreds of undergraduate psychology textbooks and taught to millions upon millions of college students? Wouldn’t it be better to look to Otto Fenichel or Jacques Lacan to try to recover some of the real truths that Freud produced, instead of assuming that since they aren’t commonly understood, aren’t part of the institution of psychology, they are purely imaginary, less real, and irrelevant?

    But that’s not a fair analogy; the better question is: would it be better to rely solely on the works of Lacan, or would it be better to read Lacan as well as all of the other texts that are available to us? Schopen is not suggesting that we ignore the philosophical readings of the Suttas as irrelevant; rather, he is attempting to contextualize them by reading some of the other (generally under-read) materials, such as archaeological inscriptions and Vinaya texts.

    Personally, I am not a historian by discipline; my background is in Philosophy, and the “real Buddha” that interests me most is the one that I find via Nāgārjuna (and Early Indian Madhyamaka generally)– but this does not mean that I pretend that this is the only “real Buddha” that matters, or that I should ignore the views of other Buddhists of other times, including (even) the Buddha as businessman.

    Tom: And it is hugely useful to see what kinds of containment strategies were used to tame and domesticate the radical insights of Buddhist thought.

    Indeed. But how are we to determine which are the radical insights, and which are containments? Can we really be certain that the process purely one of containing prior radical thought, and not (at least in part) one of radicalizing prior thought found to be too contained? Is there any good reason to believe that the view that monks should not handle money does not represent such a later radicalization? I fear it is too easy to remake the Buddha in the image that we want him to appear; the Jesus Seminar famously (and rightly, in my opinion) takes as its watchword “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

  35. Michael, clearly either I’m absolutely being unclear, or you are just determined to misunderstand me. Your every claim in you last post is exactly the stance of the “reactionary subject,” refusing to accept that there is any such thing as “truth” that is not relative. As Badiou says, every reactionary is a relativist. I just want to say one more time that I am not saying, I do not believe, and I don’t care whether, the pali canon is “earlier.” That has NOTHING TO DO WITH MY POINT! I am only saying that the understanding that exchange value is a source of delusion is true, regardless of who came up with it or when, and that the vinaya depiction of Buddha negotiating loans has no useful philosophical insight. To use a rhetorical question to dismiss the attempt to determine which insight are, in fact, radical is the same reactionary move as Schopen makes in his rhetorical claim the Buddha was a businessman (yes, he says exactly that–I know it is for rhetorical reasons, but he does say it.) Prior or later has nothing to do with my point–if there were no containment, there would never need to be radical thought–I am NOT looking for an “original” radical thought that is LATER contained. I am saying that the radical thought takes place over centuries of philosophical practice, in tandem with multiple attempts to contain it.

  36. Tom– I am certainly not aiming at misunderstanding you. I’m trying to read and respond to you in good faith, honestly.

    I am not, I am afraid, much of a reader of Badiou, being more partial to Derrida– so it may not be altogether surprising that I take a more Nietzschean view that all facts are colored by interpretations; this does not imply that all interpretations are of equal force, mind you, just that we have no direct, unmediated access to truths that are not already conditioned (by historical processes, among others.)

    I happen to agree with you, as a matter of fact, that the statement “exchange value is a source of delusion” is true, regardless of who came up with it or when. However, I disagree with you that it is of no importance whether we attribute this statement to the Buddha or not.

    Schopen claims that the Buddha was a businessman to the monks he has identified in Early India. To them, that’s part of “the Real Buddha.” And personally, I find this fact to be quite interesting, as it is a Buddha very different than the ones we are accustomed to encountering today.

    So, the point here (for me, at least) is not to choose between the two competing Buddhas (your Buddha as proto-Marxist, and the Indian monks Buddha as businessman) to see which one is more philosophically interesting; rather, it is to see which is attested to in which places and times, and to understand the relationships between them (and the many other real Buddhas to be uncovered.)

    I don’t think there’s any reason to ignore the historical record in an attempt to construct a Buddha which holds the ideas we personally wish him to hold. And if that makes me a “reactionary subject” to Badiou, well, I’ll just have to learn to live with that.

  37. I absolutely agree that we should not try to construct a Buddha who “holds the ideas we wish him to.” What I seem unable to make clear is that I am opposed to constructing ANY kind of individual Buddha, proto-marxist, radical, businessman or any other. I don’t care what ideas “A” Buddha held. I am unconcerned with constructing “competing Buddhas.” The only interest I have in Buddhist thought is exactly to uncover those ideas that are philosophically interesting and useful. If the >subject-Buddha< produced some of them (I think it did), then that is what matters. It does not matter whether they were original, earlier, or institutionally accepted. Attention to history doesn't make you a reactionary subject; accepting (with Derrida and Neitzsche) the relativism of over-historicization does.

    It is absolutely of importance if we attribute certain ideas to "the" Buddha; would not make any such attributions, as they can only lead to obscurantism.

  38. In that case, Tom, I wish you luck in your endeavours, and hope that you are able to uncover those ideas that are philosophically interesting and useful to you via whatever hermeneutic strategy that guides you.

    As for me, I maintain (following Derrida, I suppose, and perhaps Gadamer) that meaning is constructed by reference to context, and that it therefore behooves me to attempt to fill in as much of the relevant context as possible from historical sources.

  39. Ah, at last, we’ve stopped quibbling and arrived at the root of the disagreement!

    Lucky or luckless, I’ll trudge on. And I’ll wish you something much better than luck: in order that you may someday stop piling bricks of contextual knowledge on the great wall of capitalist ideology, I wish you failure and frustration in all your endeavors!

    And, between historical records, maybe read some Badiou.

    With tongue in cheek,

  40. Hallo Michael and Tom

    It would be regrettable if you two depart exchanging fire while the zombies of the ghost-buddha feel free to harass us with their arrogance.

    Don‘t we see with all those real buddhists a kind of logocentrism? The statement of Mrs. Hoetsu O‘Brian in #30 seems to me just this. She kindly reminds us to „keep in mind that bodhi, or suchness, itself in ineffable, so anything you say about it is conditional and relative.“ Suchness is the absolute which is described by the sign, but it depends on the sign and is in a deep interrelationship with it, which makes it dependent on it. That is how I understand Derrida‘s analysis of logocentrism. If I take Nagarjuna‘s „dependent co-arising“ which „is explained as emptiness“ with the two being in-itself a „dependent designation“ (MMK XXIV, 18, Garfield-translation) – isn‘t it that I have then something like Derrida‘s „différance“? And couldn‘t it be that that „dependent co-arising“ and „la différance“ are of the same „truth“ in the sense Badiou uses the term?


  41. Matthias: If I take Nagarjuna‘s „dependent co-arising“ which „is explained as emptiness“ with the two being in-itself a „dependent designation“ (MMK XXIV, 18, Garfield-translation) – isn‘t it that I have then something like Derrida‘s „différance“?

    That’s pretty much the abstract of the research proposal I am shopping around for a PhD.

  42. Matthias,

    There is some real similarity between Nagarjuna and Derrida. Our familiarity today with deconstruction perhaps gives us a better chance of grasping Nagarjuna’s thought. David Loy discusses this similarity in “Lack and Transcendence” and other places. I think Huntington also discusses this in “Emptiness of Emptiness.”

    I would stress your qualifier though: something like. Deconstruction, like Heidegger, tends to leave the “real” (as dasein or referent, etc.) outside the touch of symbolic systems. Derrida was brilliant at shining a light on those points (those “metaphysical moments”), where language attempts to elide and conceal the unpleasant material reality supporting its unified appearance. Nagarjuna, though, doesn’t (in my opinion) assume the same universal power of the symbolic order/system of language. Madhyamaka, I would argue, is less organized around deconstructing illusory binaries, and sees each “positive” or existent or apparent entity as dependent on a network of causes, not just on some “other” which it represses.

    Badiou’s idea of the separation of truth and knowledge also has some similarities, but again is not the same thing. Truth, for Badiou, is not the hopelessly ineffable “experience,” but is something not yet demonstrable in knowledge. One example might be Fermat’s last theorem, which all mathematicians were sure was “true,” but wasn’t provable until recently. Again, there are similarities to Nagarjuna’s thought, in that what appears, what is knowable, is not exactly illusory (it is knowledge) but is still susceptible to change. Badiou puts much more focus on forcing that change, though.

    I do think we are at a point in philosophy today where early Mahayana thought is much more accessible than it was a half-century ago; but there’s always the danger of mapping Buddhist thought onto various modern Western schools, and missing its unique insights.

    O’Brien, and much of Zen, seems to me to be much more Heideggerian than logocentric–cutting off all thought and insisting that the unthinkable being of big mind (or buddha nature or true self or true nature) is a timeless given we can only talk circles around, and never change. This kind of mystical quietism is today’s most common form of x-Buddhist ideology.

  43. I’d like to return to an original question posed by Glenn: “Why, why do x-buddhists continue to embrace this Sunday-school fable of the Buddha?”. Much of the commentary has been inspired by philosophical, historical and hermeneutic impulses. I would simply like to look at the question sociologically. And the basic answer is that biography matters very much socially in creating narrative templates for action and interpretation. And for a religious tradition, biographies of (presumed) historical originators matter very, very much. They don’t just provide any old template. They provide the template. The transcendent hierophany of originary, foundational authority. They instruct followers not only in what to do and what to say, but in general, overarching, generative structures of value, beliefs, practices and experiences.

    We can see this is true for both Western Buddhists and Asian Buddhists. Western Buddhists are resolute in finding their preferred structure of value, belief and practice in the biographical tale of Gautama Buddha. That structure changes with the eras and the interests of the social niche they represent, but the impulse remains. The historical Buddha was a critic of ritual and rationalist reformer. No, he was a paradoxical teacher of ineffable mysticism. No, he was the first scientist and psychotherapist. No, he was the first liberal democrat and progressive social activist. For Asian Buddhists, well especially Theravadins, the biography of Gautama Buddha is even more of a prescriptive template. The biographies of arhants and saints are literally, in retrospect, told as shadowed, varied recapitulations of key elements in his foundational biographical narrative. His story is the story they try to recreate and re-enliven. Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists are not so indebted to Gautama’s biography as the model of the exemplary life of liberation, of course, but they have their own foundational biographies back at or near their key moments of origin to choose from – Bodhidharma, Milarepa, etc.

    So the real question, sociologically and historically, I would argue is this: can any Axial Age religious tradition present itself without a biography of its originary founder, and by extension without a narrative of its original religiosity that it claims to be true, authentic, real, accurate? If all biographies of originary founders and of original religiosity in the age of that founder are lost to historical reconstruction, forever overwritten by the ideologies, myths and narratives of subsequent communities of interpretation and practice, can believers and practitioners tell the tales of their beliefs, actions and faiths without reference to either of these two grounding sources of authority and authenticity? If not, then why Gautama’s biography keeps getting reinvented and replicated is not such a mysterious question after all.

  44. Interesting rhetorical strategy, Erick, given the topic of this discussion. All the previous posts have been “inspired by philosophical impulses,” and you will return to the “original” question to give the true answer. Which, of course, has nothing to do with philosophy, but with the down-to-earth reality of sociology. But your answer is not at all sociological, it is psychological: we all have an innate psychological need to produce a “narrative template for action and interpretation.” You imply that this is universal, and unavoidable, in which case it is not at all sociological.

    Or, are you arguing, that somehow the Axial Age produced this tendency, by producing religions of a certain kind?

    Your “basic answer” simply begs the question, unless you are claiming that this need of a “biography of an originary founder” is actually a transcendently true, innate feature of our human psychology. Is this your claim? If not, you would have to account, sociologically at the very least, for how this need arises.

    I find this psychological explanation unconvincing; I’ll still with the philosophical impulses, I think.

  45. Tom,

    I never claimed I was providing the ‘true’ answer. I’m only providing another answer. A different explanation. I have no illusions to definitive, final and singular resolutions. And I did return to the original, first question listed by Glenn. So yes, I literally returned to first questions.

    My answer is very much sociological and anthropological in spirit. It is informed by the robust literature in those two fields on the power of narrative in shaping the social life of both individuals and collectivities. That it presumes a model of psychological processes is obvious and unremarkable, as does all social scientific theorizing. In that sense I suppose it would be more fair to call it social psychological in character. To imply my assertions are a version of psychological reductionism is false and dismissive. In some senses this argument is, perhaps, more down to earth. At a minimum, the scholarly literature on narrative is founded upon a variety of empirical studies. I do find that an analytic strength.

    I proposed that this impulse and strategy in the rhetoric of religious authority might be a shared trait among Axial Age traditions. By definition, this means this is not a universal feature of human society, since there are and have been other ways of conceptualizing, organizing and practicing cosmologies. If this was a full blown theory and analytic model I would account sociologically for how this need arises. Since it is an initial musing, however, I don’t feel too bad about not providing that.

    That you don’t find this “psychological” explanation convincing is fine with me. If you are implying that your own arguments about ideology, etc do not also presume implicit psychological explanations and arguments, however, then I think you are being unfair. Your arguments are filled with unstated assumptions and unexplicated models about psychological dynamics as well.

  46. Erick,
    I didn’t mean to be unfair–I was responding more to the implicit message in your rhetoric, which I still find ironic. The post is asking why we keep focusing on a silly mythical narrative instead of engaging in the ideas of Buddhism, and the rhetorical structure of your response asks us to stop trying to answer the question with philosophical ideas and attend to a concrete narrative, a positivist description in place of an explanation. Sorry if you can’t see the irony, but I still think its amusing–I guess I have a rarified sense of humor.

    As for your suggestion about the sociology of the axial age, if it is an “initial musing,” then I would just offer this as advice. If this is NOT a feature of universal human psychology, then you will have to find some way to explain how this structure of ideological interpellation occurs across multiple cultures, and still obtains thousand of years later. What sociological factors could possibly explain this broad a phenomenon? The rise of literacy? The invention of money? Reaching a critical mass of population growth? Inter-cultural communication and trade? All of these? It’s an interesting suggestion, if you can answer it with a sociological explanation instead of just a description. If you just say “this happened, we can’t say why,” you will always have to fall back on a psychological answer on the order of “all people need narratives,” which seem indefensible to me. Of course, as Marx insisted, there are some universal of human nature (we are not infinitely malleable, despite what many postmodern thinkers suggest0, but I doubt that attachment to idealized biographies of religious leaders is one of these universal traits.

    As it is, though, your “basic answer” just begs the question. If we embrace this fable because we’ve always embraced fables in the past doesn’t explain anything at all.

  47. Tom,

    There is nothing positivisitic in my argument. There are, of course, many non-positivisitic epistemological options in the social science. What you see as implicit, I would argue is simply an unwarranted and ungrounded projection. And I suspect that it isn’t accidental that you have now tossed at me two or three of the easiest and most casual pejorative claims frequently made against social scientific arguments – psychological reductionism, positivism and description (not explanation).

    My comment about this being a phenomenon particular to Axial Age religions was a very minor point of my argument. You have inflated it into a central proposition that I now apparently need to write a minor treatise to defend in order to advance my more primary claim. Why is it though that you are unwilling to actually engage with the central point of my argument? That narrative is a central means for organizing social action, encoding social memory and constituting social authority. And that biographical narratives are a particularly potent and foundational form of social narrative. And that consequently (Axial Age) religions find biographical narratives of originary founders so socially powerful, efficacious and useful that they could hardly envision themselves without them. Hence, the need to continually rethink, rewrite and revive them. In that sense there is nothing “silly” about the biographical narratives of religious founders. Besides, even the modern Western Enlightenment project has relied over and over on various mythic narratives of origin regarding natural law, natural rights, secular reason, the invisible hand of the market, etc. that have no grounding in historical reality.

    And again, I have to repeat myself on principle, even though you apparently can’t grasp the point. Claiming that people find narratives useful to think with and do things with is simply not apriori a psychological argument. But perhaps you need to wisely inform all those sociologists and anthropologists studying narrative that they are really crypto-psychologists. I’m sure they will be very surprised to discover that fact. I’m also sure they won’t be persuaded by your assertion in the least.

  48. Erick,

    You are right, I did miss your “central point,” I thought you said that this tendency to organize social action with narrative arose in the axial age. Apparently, your argument is that it is a timeless universal feature of how the human mind tends to work, that is simply employed at various times in various cultures–but, somehow, this timeless and non-culture-bound tendency is NOT a psychological trait. I am sure that many sociologists and anthropologists would refuse to believe that this is really just a form of psychologism. I am sure of that because they have been informed of it hundreds of times by many thinkers smarter and more persuasive than I am, and still refuse to understand the criticism. It is quite simple: if biographical narrative ARE in fact a “potent and foundational form of social narrative,” but there is no historically specific explanation for this causal power they have over people, then the only alternative is that it is a psychological tendency of human nature. Simply asserting that this is “not positivist” or not a “psychological argument” doesn’t help–you are simply making a positivist psychological claim, then shouting that it is not one. But you can’t explain why it isn’t one.

    I certainly can grasp your point–but apparently, you cannot grasp the implications of your own claims.

  49. Just one more point–from my perspective, saying something is a psychological argument is NOT in itself pejorative. There are good psychological arguments and bad ones. The entire project of marxism rests, ultimately, on a psychological argument: that human beings have an innate psychological need to use all of their potential, and to the degree that this need is limited they are oppressed. I do think that remaining at the descriptive level and refusing the explanatory it always a bad thing, but psychological answer are usually bad only when we don’t acknowledge that they ARE, in fact, psychological. Usually this takes the form of simply assigning causal power to something (eg, narratives), and ignoring its causal power must depend on a characteristic of the human individual.

  50. Tom,

    You really are a poor close reader of text. I never said that the tendency to organize social action with narrative arose in the Axial Age. Go back to post 47 and really read it. After the majority of that post’s substance discussed the central role of narrative in organizing social action (with no time frame expressed), I then posed a closing assertion that expanded upon that general idea. And that assertion was that it seemed to me that Axial Age religions were especially disposed to the use of a particular kind of narrative: the biography of supposed originary founders.

    I do in fact grasp the implications of my own claims. What I don’t accept is the implications of your misrepresentations of my claims. And every back and forth between us has been about these misrepresentations. You in fact don’t seem capable of grasping my point because you consistently intuit implicit and explicit claims in my argument that simply are not there. You make assertions – such as that I claimed the narrative organization of social action arose in the Axial Age – which quite obviously are not in my statement at all when read carefully. They are merely the projections of arguments, debates and contested theoretical claims seemingly already bouncing around in your head and haunting you such that you incorrectly see their shadows darkening other people’s statements. But from what I can tell from other comment threads, that is a specialty of yours – grasping the implicit yet unrecognized claims of other people’s arguments that they themselves cannot grasp. And which they themselves deny are there when you confront them with these supposed truths or presuppositions.

    It’s quite interesting that you have consistently failed to address the central claim of my assertion: the centrality of narrative to the organization of social action; its power and efficacy. Why this is the case I don’t know. Instead this whole series of exchanges between us has been about YOUR counter-claims regarding the epistemological and analytic presuppositions behind the substantive empirical argument. About when the efficacy of narrative emerged (gee, i don’t know, probably after or alongside the emergence of language in humans; how could we ever be more specific than that?). About whether my argument is really psychological or not (you seem to think that disciplinary frames are solitary and exclusive; that arguments cannot have multi-discplinary frames of reference and logic. The entire argument of Marxism rests on a psychological argument? Really? No sociological, historical or other heuristic models of argumentation imbricated in Capital or his other works, or rather that they are all ultimately secondary to and derivative of a psychological argument? Wow. I bet that would be a revelation to most established Marxist scholars.)

  51. Just one more point as well, Tom.

    The reaction to this blog and these comment threads is quite interesting as one bounces around the Buddhist blogosphere. A good number of people comment on how interesting and thought-provoking the essays are, but how uninviting the comments and discussion are. That the tone and character of the discussions turn them off of participating. Which seems to be true. You and Glenn have noted with some surprise at times at how few comments your musings provoke. And it seems to be true. Many people reading, few choosing to comment. Even when Glenn makes comments in other folks blogs, they typically decline to engage. They basically say, thanks for your input, we seem to be pursuing different ideas or projects, good luck with yours and too-da-loo. The polite brush-off, basically. Why?

    Here is my 3-part speculation as to why. Obviously informed by my recent experience, but not I think unique to me. (I have read most of the comments on this blog, over the months.)

    1. Consistently a (the?) foundational responses to others’ ideas, and even a basic argument of the site, is essentially this: as exemplary hermeneutics of suspicion we have discovered the deep ideological structure of Buddhist discourse that undergirds all Buddhist (or other) statements, ideas, beliefs and actions, regardless of their superficial surface diversity and presumed disagreements with each other. And by the way, your statement reveals you to be a clueless victim of this ideology as well. Why not take a close reexamination of your statements and agree with us? But the thing is, no one really takes kindly to be told they are dupes, fools of false consciousness. They would rather discuss the substantive comment of their assertions. So eventually, sooner or later, most just walk away instead. Because really, in the end, one person’s false consciousness is another person’s projection. It all becomes a game of rhetoric in who can more persuasively name the other person’s implicit, unstated and unrecognized foundational presumptions and intentions. And there is no final end to that game if each party believe they are not dupes or automatons. And if they have no good reason to believe that the other person has privileged access to reality or their consciousness.

    2. And since most folks would rather discuss the substantive empirical content of their claims, would rather be interested in a give-and-take about their ideas on the grounds they were advanced, they get a bit frustrated. They spend much more time stating and restating their initial ideas over and over in response to critical comments, instead of engaging in an expanding substantive dialogue. And many of the questions they receive are critical challenges demanding defense rather than curious, sympathetic inquiries such as “why do you say this” or “what might be the implications of this” or “that’s interesting. I’m not sure I understand the implications of x or y”. Which is to say, the tone of comments on this blog is all too frequently critique rather than collaborative exploration. Glenn is much better at the later typically; Tom, you are pretty much consistently critique of unstated and unrecognized implications or presuppositions right out of the gate. But since most people have little endurance for (academic) critique, very few hang around or participate. Even the academics. Because even academics engage in small talk and collaborative intellectual conversations most of the time, rather than pointed thrust-and-parry, when dealing in person with their dialogue partners.

    3. And so much critique, so little collaborative exchange, along with not enough discussion of the substantive points you thought you were raising, ultimately, in the end, leaves folks not just frustrated, but quite frankly bored.

    So there you have my little argument. (Is this psychological in character? Sociological? Historical? I’ll let Tom explain that to you, since I obviously cannot.) Far too many folks come to this site, and these comment threads, and find themselves insulted, ignored and eventually bored. And if I’m correct and if that tone remains the same, then I predict you will have a very small number of repeat interlocutors to have “debates” with and about, and many, many more folks who stop in briefly, try to engage once or twice, and then wander off the comment threads realizing they have better uses of their time. (Oh my god – a prediction! What are my epistemological and empirical grounds for making a prediction??) Like me though, they may contain to visit every now and then for the thought-provoking essays, but decline to participate in the thought-deadening discussions.


  52. ” that is a specialty of yours – grasping the implicit yet unrecognized claims of other people’s arguments that they themselves cannot grasp.”

    Well, thanks! That has always been my goal.

  53. Glenn

    I agree with Erick
    We now know the opinion of Tom about it, but Tom is not interested in buddhists and buddhism (but in french philosophy, he told me)
    So Glenn, what is your opinion about it, is your blog a dead end ?

    About your question “Another question (added 12-5-11): How would your reception of Buddhism be affected if you saw it as a hodge-podge of often disconnected ideas and theories about human being (which it is)?”
    How can you speak about “Buddhism” as a singular ?
    There are Buddhisms (plural): dozens; each with their own ideas and theories and teachings of with some are connected and some are not connected at all with ideas and theories and teachings of an other specim of Buddhism
    My answer to your question: not any more, I did but now I created my own buddhism, what if many Asian cultures has always be done the last 2000 years.


  54. That’s the spirit Tom, Double-down on that cramped, deflated style of engaging with other people’s ideas and arguments.

    What is truly most amazing about our ‘dialogue’ is how utterly uninterested you are in the central substantive content of my ideas from the very beginning and throughout. There is no sign of humble curiosity at all. You only ask me to clarify whether I do or do not advance a presupposition you see lying hidden in my argument. Other than that, your response is mostly just filled with your assertions about your interests. You don’t ask me to clarify or expand upon any of my substantive points. You don’t ask me whether I am implying this or that, whether I’m suggesting this or that. No, you don’t need to ask any questions really. You know the answers already (in fact, when I tell you I don’t mean what you imply, you basically tell me I’m confused; that in fact I am saying what you assert). You understand my argument already, fully. More than that you understand my argument better than I do. And all the rest of your comments are designed to show that. Clearly no need for humility or exploration or hesitation necessary. (And yet you can’t even accurately reproduce my literal, factual statements. I’m waiting for you to show me where I stated that the narrative organization of social action emerged in the Axial Age. Where’s the direct quote to support that assertion?)

    So, no you aren’t really curious about my ideas. What you are most interested in, apparently, is the act of showing (to whom? – me, other readers, yourself?) that you are smarter and more informed than me. That is where your energy, zest and focus lies. That in fact you aren’t just smarter, as in having a better argument or theory. No, you actually understand my ideas and their implications better than I do. You are that clever. Hence your obsessive return to the arrogant claim that I can’t grasp the implications of my own claims. Being acknowledged as more clever, more insightful is what animates you, that is the performative need you must fulfill. You want – need? – to be the top dog. You need others to say “uncle”, and thus in this and other comment threads you complain repeatedly about how others simply can’t grasp (i.e. agree with) what you are saying. That others willfully misunderstand you. You are apparently only interested in others ideas when they agree with or confirm your own. That’s how curious you are about other people’s ideas and arguments.

  55. (Re; Comment 47; I will comment to 55 later.)

    Hi Erick,

    Sorry for taking so long to reply. I think the question you ask is a good one; namely:

    can any Axial Age religious tradition present itself without a biography of its originary founder, and by extension without a narrative of its original religiosity that it claims to be true, authentic, real, accurate?

    Your ancillary question and conclusion, too, I think, are helpful and illuminating ways of reframing and indeed answering my original question. I think part of what I am doing at this blog, however, is to question the necessity of framing the whole in terms of “religion” and “religiosity” and such. I agree that founding figures serve, sociologically and historically, as exemplars and templates of human being. And “the Buddha/Gotama/Gautama/Siddhartha, etc., clearly serves that function for all Buddhists. But I aim here to push us past a conception of Buddhism as Buddhism; and toward a conception of Buddhism as just another discipline among divergent disciplines that presume to offer knowledge about human being. Making this move in the way I have in mind, though, means dismantling the “Buddhist” apparatus that protects the unique warrant of Buddhism to specialized knowledge. In “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism” I refer to this protective impulse of Buddhism as the “vallation,” because it functions as an underground fortress, and the apparatus as the “voltaic network of postulation,” because of the numerous, and indeed infinitely looping recursion of, premises, axioms, postulates, etc.

    So, given this move I wish to make, your questions and answer serve to push the question on a bit to: “Why, why do x-buddhists continue to embrace a religious framework for what is ostensibly a liberating enterprise?” An assumption here is, of course, that “religious framework” and “liberation” cannot co-exist (back to the problem of ideology vs. a science of ideology).

    Thanks for your comment, Erick. I’ll get to comment 55 later today, I hope.


  56. RE: comment 55.

    Hi Erick,

    Thanks! I have been waiting and waiting for an honest response to my questions about the reluctance of people—particularly self-described Buddhists—to comment here. I really appreciate it, Erick.

    I’ll respond, in turn, to your three points.

    1. I actually think the first part of point one really nails my basic premise (belief?); namely, I have uncovered an “exemplary hermeneutics of suspicion,” etc., and that many commenters’ statements reveal them to be both “clueless victims” of and willing participants in x-buddhistic ideology. And I do ask, as you say: “Why not take a close reexamination of your statements?” The “agree with us” part, though, is less interesting to me. Agree with the fact that you are beholden to “buddhistic decision,” as I formulate it—that’s the crucial part. My interlocutor might see that that’s the case, and then say, “so what?” But I don’t think that he/she can deny that decision is the case. It’s like getting a theist to acknowledge that his faith in supernatural agency is based not on knowledge but on belief. Seeing the distinction is crucial, and it can be devastating. Similarly, whether one recognizes x-buddhistic decision or remains oblivious to it constitutes a life-defining distinction. In both cases, not seeing the distinction does indeed make us “dupes, fools of false consciousness.” I will boldly repeat that claim: Not seeing the distinction, does indeed make us “dupes, fools of false consciousness.” When you say “they would rather discuss the substantive comment of their assertions,” you miss an important point, Erick: I am not in the least bit interested in airing the endlessly looping recursions of The Dharma here. I am interested in precisely what my “exemplary hermeneutics of suspicion” reveals about the generative grammar of dharmic discourse. I thus see most comments as opportunities to exemplify the latter. What is so disappointing about many comments is that they operate within the parameters of the old dharmic rules of discourse (the perpetual firing of the voltaic network of postulation; the endless burnishing of the dharmic charism; the tireless intoning of the buddhistic vibrato). I want to destroy those rules and create a different game altogether. I lay out the initial rules to that game on this blog and in my article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.” But, alas, very few commenters seem to really dig in very deeply. They just keep skating around on their safe little dharmic pond. So, when you say that “they would rather discuss the substantive comment of their assertions,” I respond: “substantive?!” (See “Buddheme” in the article.) The second half of your point one eludes me. I don’t see myself doing that at all—playing “a game of rhetoric in who can more persuasively,” etc. I’m really not interested in that sort of thing. I am genuinely interested in advancing the work done by my “exemplary hermeneutics of suspicion.”

    2. Again, I agree with you, Erick. People indeed “would rather discuss the substantive empirical content of their claims, would rather be interested in a give-and-take about their ideas on the grounds they were advanced.” But I am not interested in that project precisely because it simply promotes more of the same: it bolsters the dharmic fortress using the ballast of the dharma itself. And I am interested in destroying that fortress! Let me boldly repeat that statement: I am interested in destroying that fortress! Why? Because I want to have a look at what is in there, for once. Seeing what is there means, in my game, stripping it of buddhistic pretension, canceling its warrant, muting its vibrato, and all the other stuff I suggest in my heuristics. Perhaps nothing whatsoever will remain in the fortress in the end. Perhaps something will. We won’t know until we do the work of stripping away the clutter. And we can’t do the work if we’re propping up the façade and guarding its precious treasure from the coruscating gaze of suspicious critics. So, yes, for the most part, I am indeed concerned with “critique rather than collaborative exploration.” Some commenters, you included, provide the opportunity for collaborative exploration. But my overall concern is critique—indeed, destructive critique. (See “Destruction” in the article.)

    3. I cannot, Erick, possibly begin to consider how I might even vaguely suggest something like a shadow of what someday might form into something ever-so-slightly resembling an unrealized notion of an expression articulating how bored I am by x-buddhistic discourse. Having said that, I fear I have understated my position.

    Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with your prediction. In fact, I am working hard to fulfill it. My hope is to attract six or seven readers who can develop the work that I am, I hope, stimulating here. Encouragingly, serious writers and bloggers in Germany, France, and Poland have begun some of this work within their own milieux. This blog, alas, is not a forum for dharmic edification. This blog is a virus in dharmic discourse. If I may twice steal from the Teutonic Dionysios: There is nothing more ridiculous than a blogger who wants to be liked. And, finally, this ain’t no blog, brother; this be dynamite!

    Erick, I think you get the spirit of all of this. I appreciate that you find some of the essays “thought-provoking.” I regret that you find the discussion “thought-deadening.” But I also don’t quite accept that “thought-deadening” is the proper characterization. After all, look at how spirited your exchanges with Tom were. Can’t dialog be hot and itchy and unnerving and aggravating and frustrating and an outright fucking pain in the ass and nonetheless, what—valuable? worth the trouble? thought-provoking? Who knows what bacteria will eventually be spawned by exposing oneself to the particular strain of virus germinating here?

    In any case, thanks so much for taking the time and trouble to participate. I value your intelligent, insightful input very much, Erick.


  57. Hi Joop,

    Is my blog a dead end? If you are a Buddhist seeking edification in the good dharma, probably a dead end, yes. If you are curious (as a Buddhist or not) about what Buddhism might offer you unbound from, well, Buddhism, then, no, not a dead end.

    I agree that we can’t sensibly speak of “Buddhism” in the singular. That’s why I coined the term x-buddhism. The x stands for the endless modifiers that have been attached to “Buddhism” through the centuries, from Sthaviravada to Secular. The x signifies an endlessly proliferating plural-of-the-same, or plural-of-the-one. Since you have created your own Buddhism, we can add Joop-Buddhism to the x-mix. My interest here is not to evaluate the relative merits of this or that x-buddhism. My interest is to expose the basic grammar that constitutes all forms of x-buddhism.

    Thanks for your comment, Joop. I hope you’ll stay tuned a while. I check in on your blog occasionally. I can read enough Nederlands to make my way.


  58. Glenn

    I thought you might also be interested in some recent feedback from one of the secular group in Sydney:

    “Hello Geoff

    My main acquaintance with Glenn Wallis has been using his edited collection of 16 key suttas, ‘Basic teachings of the Buddha’, in sutta study at Bluegum and Beaches sanghas. A post-Buddhist school seems to be emerging at the moment, an alternative to secular Buddhism. The former wants to draw on the Buddha’s tradition without being included in it or beholden to it; the latter seeks to renew the tradition from the inside. Very roughly, you could place GW in the post-Buddhist camp. He’s interesting because he knows a lot of dharma, but I find his recent writings more whippersnapperish than clear and illuminating.”

    Whippersnapperish – I like that!



  59. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for sharing this morsel. I don’t know anyone old enough to ask the meaning of “whippersnapper;” so, I had to look it up: “an unimportant but offensively presumptuous person, especially a young one.” What can I say to that?

    Maybe you can pass the following on to your sangha-mate:

    I am not “post-Buddhist.” I am non-buddhist precisely in the sense that I am articulating on this blog and in my recent writings. You might consider factoring my “knowing a lot of the dharma” into the nature and thrust of my “recent writings.” My guess is that you like the dharma, so it is natural that you like my writings that cast it in a positive light. Conversely, you don’t want the nasty spume of critical aspersion spewed upon the precious dispensation; hence, you don’t like my writings that hiss and spit. That is all perfectly logical. I understand.

    I will contest one point you make, though. The recent writings of mine that you refer to are the clearest, most illuminating heaps of scribble you will ever have the good fortune to rest your eyes on. By comparison, the suttas and sutras and perhaps tantras that I assume you so value are sumps of muddled platitudes.

    Or maybe not! We have to do the work that I propose here in order to find out. At least that’s my contention.

    My advice to all pious Seekers of the Way: stay away from here! (See “Fitting Proximity” in “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.”)

    Thanks, again, Geoff.

  60. What became of the person Guatama is fairly clear – he went thataway, as Alan Watts used to comment. That is the meaning of ‘tathagata’, anyway – ‘gone thus’.

    Anyway, I have two models for ‘realized beings’ from relatively recently, neither of whom would probably approve my quoting them here, but with that disclaimer, I will mention both – Krishnamurti, and Ramana Maharishi. Neither were Buddhist, but both were very near to my understanding of Buddha as ‘one who has gone thus’. They too were quite inconsequential as people – Krishnamurti, dreamy, absent-minded, somewhat vain about his appearance, Ramana, son of a railway clerk.

  61. Glenn,

    I do think I get the spirit of your project, which is what provokes my questions and challenges. So in that spirit, here is a little more input, regardless of its intelligence or insight.

    1. What do you see as the purpose of the comment threads on this dynamite-like blog? If I catch the drift of your prior response, you personally seem to approach it in something of the spirit of a Freudian Marxist – as an opportunity in pointing out the unconscious ideological mental habits-cum-mistakes of the commentators. As an opportunity in pointing out to them the debilitating errors of their ways. At the same time though, you seem to hold some affinity for the idea of dialogue. But are those two rhetorics of engagement really ultimately compatible? In the first the commentator is on the ideological couch, so to speak, with a clear asymmetry of epistemological privilege existing between you and he/she, while in the second model we have apparent equals in a discussion. Which is it? Or is it both, although at different times and with different commentators (when for instance the commentator proves himself first to be an equal, and as such intelligent discussion can then usefully proceed)?

    2. When I say that commentators are interested in a discussion of the substantive content of their own assertions I do not believe that is equivalent to saying that they want to discuss the tiresome dharmic discourse that bolsters the dharmic fortress. Some commentators on this blog approach the issues from the perspective of Buddhist apologetics, but not all do. And there are, after all, many forms and modalities of skeptical, non-apologetic criticism in the interrogation of “Buddhism”, “Buddhisms” or even – if it exists (see below) – “x-Buddhism”. There are a full range of scholarly and intellectual techniques and methods that don’t presume the self-legitimizing claims of Buddhist theologies and ideologies. Clearly my sharp disagreement with Tom was on the ground of the latter. I found, find, his ideas about ideology, sociality, etc which underlie his arguments to be facile, unpersuasive, and uninformed. But more than that, I simply found him incapable of directly addressing the substance of my skeptical, critical claims as presented. I gather from your comments that you aren’t particularly interested in apologetics, except to point out the errors of their ways. I wish all the participants/commentators on your site were as willing to engage the substantive content of non-apologetics however.

    3. Given that there are many different legitimate ways to be a credible skeptic of Buddhist ideology and apologetics, however, I would be interested to know on what grounds you believe you have discovered the (a?) “exemplary hermeneutics of suspicion”? And moreover, what are the epistemological grounds for your claim that you have finally, unlike all those before you, managed to pierce the deep ideological veil of Buddhist mythology, ideology and apologetics? How, if at all, is this hermeneutic an extension of prior hermeneutics of suspicion that have emerged out of the Enlightenment project? How, if at all, is it a unique advancement upon those prior hermeutics of suspicion?

    4. What constitutes the evidence that you have discovered the “basic grammar that constitutes all forms of x-Buddhism”? In what sense can you even claim that “x-Buddhism” is an actual historical, sociological reality rather than an ideal type, abstraction or side-effect of an abstracted discursive formation? If you really think that there is a single basic DNA, type or grammar to all iterations to Buddhism, then it seems to me that you really don’t recognize the ontological, sociological or historical reality of pluralism per se. Those are all just so much surface distinctions that ultimately have no final warrant to claim uniqueness. The mere illusion of distinction, really. Rather than locate any singularity of definition in the original teachings of the original creator, Gotama, you locate it in an ur-Buddhism, an ahistorical, acultural discursive grammar. Have you in this simply aped typical Buddhist mythology, while subversively inverting the value ascribed to it? Isn’t the more radical critique of Buddhist ideology and mythology to claim that it is diversity and pluralism all the way down, to the very “beginning”. And that the (Indian) historical record as now understood and reconstructed substantiates this perspective of foundational pluralism and indeterminacy? That we can now find no single, unitary, coherent, originary ur-Indian Buddhism out of which all the varieties emerged as lineal sprouts. That all we have is the diversity, rather than an x-Buddhism.

    By the way, just because an exchange is spirited, unnerving and aggravating doesn’t also mean that it is necessarily thought-provoking, much less insightful, much less enlightening. Surely you grasp the difference. Sometimes however I’m not so sure, to be honest. My exchange with Tom was not even remotely thought-provoking in any useful way with regards to the topic we were discussing. Enlightening with regards to other matters perhaps, but that was – quite literally – besides the point. And hence my frustration.

  62. Erick, I found intriguing your assertion “that the (Indian) historical record as now understood and reconstructed substantiates this perspective of foundational pluralism and indeterminacy; That we can now find no single, unitary, coherent, originary ur-Indian Buddhism out of which all the varieties emerged as lineal sprouts; That all we have is the diversity…”

    I have had a purely speculative gut guess that “pre-sectarian” Buddhism never existed; that the history of the Councils and schisms was fabricated as propaganda after the fact; that the Gotama myth was invented by some one of several vaguely-similar philosophical schools; and it was adopted by others when they saw that it was an effective recruiting tool. However, I know of no evidence for this.

    Do you? Or were you saying something entirely different in the bit I quoted above?

  63. Hi Erick. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I’ll respond to each of your numbered paragraphs. (1. and 2. now; the rest later.)

    1. Great questions. I think you nailed it with your very last one. But let’s start at the top. Yes, that’s a good way to see it: I operate, in the first instance, in the spirit of a Freudian Marxist. Like Freud, I am interested in the project of identifying self-delusion (mine and others’). Like Marx, I am interested in the project of a social-cultural critique. I think I am even more interested, however, in Habermas’s project of identifying and reconstructing the minimally necessary preconditions for dialogue that is not merely coherent, but mutually understandable, and, ultimately, perhaps even liberating. So, it’s not that I see my interlocutors as being in error. I see the issue as being whether or not the most basic condition of an “ideal speech situation” has been created: equal status in the service of an exploration of the ways in which our views—and our discourse—distort our shared social environment. In my discussions with Buddhists over the last thirty-seven years, what I almost invariably find is that my interlocutor (1) refuses to stand on level ground and (2) is oblivious to this fact. That dual problem, moreover, is derived in large part from the interlocutor’s acceptance of Buddhism’s status as specular authority. In my adaptation of Laruelle’s theory of decision, “Buddhist” precisely names a person who reflexively assumes such status. (If you want to see an example of reflexive decision at work, read the blog of the Theravadin monk Sujato, in particular the posts and comments of the monks and their ardent supporters. The specularity on display there is beyond belief.) So, while I agree with you that there is a “clear asymmetry of epistemological privilege existing between” me and my interlocutor, I see this as the reverse of what you are suggesting. Hence, much of what I am trying to do is of the nature of a radical deflation. While person Y wants to discuss the merits of this or that x-buddhistic view, I want to, in the first instance, cut off the source of charism that is coursing through the vast, voltaic network of dharmic postulation presupposed by that view, and within which that view is embedded. So, in short, it is too early for a fair dialogue with x-buddhists. But it is they who create the conditions for unfairness. (Otherwise, Buddhism is not Buddhism.)

    2. I will just speak for myself here. I do want “to engage the substantive content of non-apologetics.” I see your several comments on this blog as examples of a “skeptical, non-apologetic criticism in the interrogation of ‘Buddhism.’” That is why I take the approach that I do in responding to you (no poeticizing here). I do think, though, that I can identify an area where problems arise. In many instances, where my interlocutor wishes to discuss substantive content, I detect “the tiresome dharmic discourse that bolsters the dharmic fortress.” I would even say that I am extraordinarily sensitive to the distinction. And since the entire reason for this blog is to unmask and delineate buddhistic decision, it is on that distinction that I pivot one way and my interlocutor, so often, another.

    3. … (more coming; off to class . . .)

  64. 3. I agree, of course, that there are “many different legitimate ways to be a credible skeptic of Buddhist ideology and apologetics.” The only “grounds” I want to claim for the “exemplary” nature of my approach to criticism of Buddhism is that when applied to buddhistic data the heuristic is (1) highly revelatory regarding the workings of what I call buddhistic rhetorics and (2) consistently accurate in its predictions of (a) what form those rhetorics will take, and (b) what the result will be. Many critiques permit Buddhists to “play with [the] loaded dice” (Laruelle on philosophers) that they bring to the Great Feast of Knowledge. Mine doesn’t. It requires them check their dice at the door. That “checking”—or what the heuristic calls muting of buddhistic vibrato or cancellation of dharmic warrant—permits, in my estimation, an exemplary approach to the ensuing critique. I view virtually every other critique I have seen of Buddhism as permitting Buddhism its reason-piercing vibrato and granting it its warrant on specular authority. I know this is a bit vague. To get more specific, I think it would help to refer to an actual critique, and then make comparisons. Do you have one in mind? I am working out a clearer answer (I hope) in the book. I argue there that Francoise Laruelle’s non-philosophy, from which I received my initial impetus for my own approach, is unlike any critical practice that I have ever seen in several regards. But I am still formulating the details of that argument.

    4. Great questions. The evidence of a valuable discovery lies, again, in usefulness: the heuristic reveals and predicts x-buddhistic rhetorical maneuvers. You are correct, too, in that I do claim that “x-buddhism” indexes an illimitable recursion of a One: Buddhism. A study of the “x” would be historical and comparative. It would, as you say, throw light on “the ontological, sociological or historical reality of pluralism per se.” From a study of the x we would begin to see that the One, Buddhism, breeds infinite interpretation not only of the world, but of itself. Yet, this same study of protean variation would inhabit clues as to the function producing such difference-of-the-same. (After all, each x modifier indicates membership in a single set: Buddhism.) My interest stems from the function of the same—from the identifying mark of the set as a whole. The term “x-buddhism” thus intends to capture the fact that the Dharmic One is indeed a unity, but a splintered unity, a pluralized singular. This move enables me to, among many other things, stop the volley of inter-dharmic squabbling and infinite exemplification. The “ontological, sociological and historical” details don’t matter. What matters is the very mechanism that enables the salvo in the first place (which I, borrowing from Laruelle, call “decision”). I would not call this decisional genesis an “ur-Buddhism;” but I would say it is “an ahistorical, acultural discursive grammar” that interests me. [I don’t understand your question: “Have you in this simply aped typical Buddhist mythology, while subversively inverting the value ascribed to it?” What is “typical Buddhist mythology”? Do you mean the myth of The One Dharma or the myth of the Enlightened Sage?] To your question “Isn’t the more radical critique of Buddhist ideology and mythology to claim that it is diversity and pluralism all the way down, to the very ‘beginning,’” I would say, no; there is of course the kind of diversity you refer to; that is undeniable. But a critique of diversity is not radical enough for me. That would just be flopping around in Buddhism’s dharmic ocean. It is precisely decision that permits a truly radical critique. I am interested in the function that I call “difference-of-the-same.” That is not a search for some “ur-Buddhism.” Pardon my bluntness, but I don’t give a fuck about Buddhism, ur or otherwise. I do care about finding a way to get some clarity on how “Buddhism” functions here and now. I think my theory allows for that end, in the very least. But don’t take my word for it. I would encourage you or anyone else reading this to “work” the heuristic (at the end of “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism”). I think that you will find it does shed a great deal of light on, and accurately predict, x-buddhist rhetorics.

    About your final paragraph, I agree: an exchange that is “spirited, unnerving and aggravating” is not of necessity “thought-provoking, much less insightful, much less enlightening.” I do grasp the difference. I also am profoundly dissatisfied with the nature of buddhistic discourse in North America. I find it at turns vacuous, facile, simplistic, and pollyannish. I see it as being run through by a level of fallacious reasoning that would make a philosophy undergraduate snicker. I see it as deeply dishonest. Discourse on Buddhism is hundreds of years behind that of Christian theology. As contemptible as theology is, it has at least had the balls to engage the hard-nosed thinkers of the age. Even if often in bad faith, at least theology dresses for the game. Buddhism is still basking in the sun, basking in its reputation for unquestionable goodness, for its boundless “compassion,” and for having the inside track on human happiness. All of that may be good for the institution of Buddhism; but my observations and experience tell me that it is not good for human beings. We are a Buddhaphilic, indeed, even Buddhaholic West. I want to encourage a level of exchange that counterbalances what I see as the preciousness extended to those who embrace The Dharma. After all, such dharma practitioners claim to possess a wisdom of unsurpassable value. Surely, they can handle some heated language. I, we, may error in doing so; but, for now, I am willing to take that risk.

    One more thing I do care greatly about, Erick, are the kinds of questions you are asking. Thank you. I feel that my answers here are pretty untidy. Sorry about that.

  65. So, with regard to point 4. Perhaps it would be useful to make more explicit the way this project is non-Buddhism rather than non-religion generally. That is, what do the x-Buddhisms have in common that implies they need a new, specific technology of deconstruction, so that the methods already applied to (say) Christianity are inadequate?

    I’ve just now done a quick re-skimming of the list of terms/heuristics you give in the Nascent paper. It’s not immediately obvious how these are more applicable to Buddhism than (say) Christianity. Generally, they are means for puncturing truth-claims that are based in transcendent authority that itself has no basis. It seems they would work equally well with the straightforward analogy Church=institutional sangha, Jesus=Gotama, Bible=sutras, God’s Truth/Law=Dharma.

    I don’t mean to come off as unsympathetic to either your project or x-Buddhism, but: is there something more that we need to do here than say “yeah, that’s all bullshit, let’s get on with real life?”

    Or, in other words, could we just stand back and let the whole edifice collapse, instead of elaborately charting the ruins in order to figure out where best to place the explosives?

    (This is a real question; I don’t know the answer. I’ve done a lot of mapping myself, a lot of scheming about where to put the bombs. But I’m not sure it’s necessary.)

  66. Great questions, David! I should sit back and think about them longer; but they excited me so much, I couldn’t wait.

    Much of what I am proposing consists in taking a preliminary step: deflating Buddhism. But the thing is, as you of course know, a major rhetorical trope of Buddhism—and one that has hooked countless followers in the Enlightened West and lent Buddhism much of its favorable reputation here generally and, particularly, among scientists, psychologists, physicians, and other professionals—is that it is already deflated. Buddhism’s self-presentation is that of an ordinary, if ultimately extraordinary (given its self-understanding), knowledge system. It’s a science. It’s a psychology. It’s a physics. It’s a philosophy. It’s a spirituality. It’s a naturalized wellness program. It’s an ethics. It’s a cosmogony. It’s a cosmology. It’s a religion. It’s any combination of these that you want it to be. Buddhism knows what all of these disciplines, and many others besides, know. Again, this is why I say that Buddhism is a juggernaut from which nothing can escape. It’s also what I refer to as Buddhism’s “specularity”—it’s narcissistic seeing of itself in all things, and all things in itself.

    So, while, yes, it “would be useful to make more explicit the way this project is non-buddhism rather than non-religion generally,” I see it as first necessary to enter into the bloodstream of contemporary buddhistic discourse the idea—the possibility, the heresy—that Buddhism, contrary to its self-presentation, is no different from the most metaphysically-oriented, transcendentally-committed, ideologically-coercive, religion. Church=sangha, Jesus=Gotama, Bible=sutras, God’s Truth/Law=Dharma are not at all obvious equations to the committed x-buddhist. It is an enormous task in and of itself to establish those kinds of correspondences. (As a buddhist-themed blogger yourself, I think you know just what I am talking about.)

    At the same time, I do mean to get on with a critique that addresses Buddhism specifically. That’s why I formulate the theory of x-buddhistic decision. That’s meant to stimulate some thought about how certain nuggets that do indeed, as you say, pertain to other claimants to unique specular authority (Christianity, etc.) pan out in the stream of Scheingold that is (much of) x-buddhism.

    Is there something more that we need to do here than say “yeah, that’s all bullshit, let’s get on with real life?”

    Or, in other words, could we just stand back and let the whole edifice collapse, instead of elaborately charting the ruins in order to figure out where best to place the explosives?

    I have been thus tempted. But I have been thinking alongside of x-buddhism for so long now, I decided to engage this current project for a while. One concern of mine is to give some thought to what might be worth salvaging from the collapsing edifice. I have this idea, for some reason, that we can’t really know what that may be until we fulfill the task of criticism (exposure, Destruktion, excavation, etc.). Maybe some—even many, even most—of the models and categories and practices that derive from x-buddhistic teachings will prove to have tremendous value for us. But I think that we can’t know whether or not, and to what extent, that is the case until we place x-buddhism in a position to submit and defend its claims to the Great Feast of Knowledge.

    (This is a real question; I don’t know the answer. I’ve done a lot of mapping myself, a lot of scheming about where to put the bombs. But I’m not sure it’s necessary.)

    I personally think that the mapping that you are doing, David, is absolutely necessary to precisely this (speculative non-buddhist) end. Courage (and stamina) to you. Thanks for that, and for participating here.

  67. Good, I hoped that would be your answer. It seems to be my answer too. However frustrating and idiotic Buddhism is, I can’t seem to walk away from it, due to the suspicion that there’s something worth saving in there. And, that we can’t clearly see what (if anything) that something is until we’ve dynamited a lot of the rest.

  68. Seems, after actually attempting to ‘do’ buddhism for almost 30 years, that much of it rests on tenuous interpretations of at least one if not two long-lost languages within which the meanings are self-confirming.

    For example the four noble truths- dukkha = suffering, samudaya = desire or clinging, nirodha = ceasing, Marga = path to follow and so on. It is a leap, then, to say ‘all life is suffering caused by desire, get rid of desire by following the eightfold path. As I now understand it Dukkha means more like ‘frustration’ or dissatisfaction’ and implies a gap between our ideas and reality itself; Samudaya means more like ‘ upcoming at the same time, or aggregating, which suggests the nature of the material world. Both are presented as “truths”, not opinions. Then Nirodha could mean “ceasing” (being caught by either conceptualising or materiality)- and so be free to simply act in your life- which leads naturally to Marga = the actual unfolding of your life. If we allow these meaning to carry some weight, that changes “buddhism’ out of all recognition, as it becomes less about killing off or transcending the evil, suffering-spawning ‘desire’ and more about realising the nature of reality and how to navigate a useful and balanced life.

    This is not a scholarly reply, but based on several years of reflection and practice. Not that it means I am right, of course, but just a current station on the way.

    I like this website, and the idea of a much more critical focus. The notion of de-flating BUDDHISM and searching out something of value from the ruins of religious buddhism, magical buddhism, platonic buddhism, idealistic buddhism, life-denying buddhism seems like a worthwhile project, with or without dynamite…
    x-buddhism may be simpler than we imagine, in the end, and not something that will entertain our spiritual fantasy-lands, but return us to ordinary life with tools to live and die in a balanced way and enable us to grow out of out the mad notion to attempt to escape our patchwork human life somehow for some faraway state of beyond-human serenity and non-suffering / transcendence.
    That may also only be my own belief of course…

  69. “Buddhism is still basking in the sun, basking in its reputation for unquestionable goodness, for its boundless “compassion,” and for having the inside track on human happiness. All of that may be good for the institution of Buddhism; but my observations and experience tell me that it is not good for human beings.”

    I couldn’t agree more with the above sentiment. Among other things, this dynamic has been a goldmine by which all sorts of charlatans have enriched themselves.

    “necessary to enter into the bloodstream of contemporary buddhistic discourse the idea—the possibility, the heresy—that Buddhism, contrary to its self-presentation, is no different from the most metaphysically-oriented, transcendentally-committed, ideologically-coercive, religion.”

    Again, total agreement. Thank goodness, I think this heresy has become much less heretical in recent years as more people are forced to acknowledge Buddhism as the old-fashioned religion that it is. It is for this reason that I’ve always felt that the Stephen Bachelors and Ted Meissners of the world were doing more harm than good by asserting a supposedly reconstructed “secular” ur-Buddhism.

    I too suspect and hope that much of value can be harvested from the various x-buddhisms, but you’re right that that cannot happen until the honeymoon is ended.

  70. Could Glen Wallis take up “Advaita” next?

    I mean, after he finishes off “Buddhism”?

    I am sure Tom Pepper knows what those quote marks mean….

    (I used them only because I am confused but….)

  71. Greetings Krishna. What, exactly, are you confused about? The approach and scope of speculative non-buddhism is explained in the article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism” (downloadable on the Article page). At the end of that article, you will find certain methodological moves that, it is claimed, serve to open up x-buddhism’s closed system. It would indeed be very interesting to see some of those moves applied to Advaita Vedanta, or whatever it is you have in mind. Basically, you are speaking of destruction, though in a technical sense of that term. From the heuristic in the article just mentioned:

    Destruction. What is not being destroyed is buddhistic decision. For, in order for speculative non-buddhism to do its work, that structure must remain intact. For only if intact can it be exposed. Once exposed, however, a re-description occurs that has destructive consequences. Speculative non-buddhism, it can be said, is eminently interested in viewing Buddhism in the afterglow of its destruction. But the destruction that ensues from its analysis is closer to Heidegger’s notion of Destruktion in Being and Time, than it is to an “end of Buddhism/religion” rhetoric. It will be instructive to quote Heidegger at length here:

    When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it “transmits” is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial “sources” from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand. (Being and Time, translated by John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson [London: Blackwell Publishing, 1962], p. 43).

    Speculative non-buddhism methodology makes proximate to the practitioner Buddhism’s specular oracularity, thereby “unblocking” the “primordial ‘sources’” (concepts and practices indexing phenomenality: sunyata, anatta, anicca, etc.) from which those utterances are, ostensibly, drawn. While this unblocking of tradition’s occlusion constitutes a destruction of canonical infrastructure, it may also provide a speculative opportunity for a vivification of the “sources.” Speculative non-buddhism aims to “go back to the sources”—conceptually, not philologically—unburdened by tradition’s concealing and tedious tessellation, and see what happens.

    Now, get to work!

  72. Thank you for such a detailed response. Got carried away and read most of the pieces on your articles page…brilliant stuff which I am trying to digest as best I can.

    At an abstract level it seems to me that your Speculative Non-Buddhism is an idiosyncratic attempt to flesh out the meaning of Neti, Neti.

    Not as fluent in expression as the other posters here, so I’ll leave it there for now.

    Just wanted my response to appear below your reply.

  73. Expecting any “biography’ from long before the days of historical disciplines to be verifiable is expecting too much. Glenn Wallis starts from a modern premise and expects what is past and gone to conform.

    The ancient indian cultures especially were not record keepers. In a way it is poetically satisfying and philosophically consistent that, given the central tenets of buddhism, when we look for a historical buddha, there is no-one there!

    No-one can verify gravity either, nor electricity. We know of them by their effect. Buddhism analysed shows influences from its times – shamanic, jain, vedic and, later, hellenic thought etc – but its philosophy has a unique, cohesive insight at its centre that clearly distinguishes it from being just a melange of those influences. I doubt it originated by committee. The clarity and singular cohesion of the central teaching, I believe, strongly indicates a single source or inspiration.

    The evidence for “committees”, collective cultural influences and denominations is seen in the variations and contradictions which ‘hang off’ that core and are not of the core. I see these as different “experiments” being conducted on the same hypothesis, testing parts of it in the same way science specialises and tests from different disciplines. And just like scientific research, people buy into the ‘study’ that backs up what they want backed up!

    Even if there was a historical buddha, it’s a ‘was’ – now dead and gone, and should be treated that way – hence the dictum from 12c zen, “if you meet the buddha on the road, kill him”. He cannot awaken you, he’s dead and gone, nor can anyone else ‘wake up’ for you nor sleep for you. Kill your attachment to any external history, ‘projection’ or expectation of revelation, and work to awaken yourself.

    But – the clarity of what ‘he’ perceived and taught means that we probably have a fuller understanding of what ‘he’ essentially perceived than what we understand of even our own great-grandfather from only a century or so ago, sometimes even the person standing next to us.

    Buddhism does not proclaim that it’s divinely revealed and unchangingly perfect at the time of revelation like the theistic traditions do. It is more like the basic philosophy of science, in that it is based on the ‘negative truth’ that nothing can be absolutely proved, only absolutely disproved, and any ‘knowledge’ is only gained by each one’s own work and experimentation.

    In that ‘negative truth’ it is like the ‘neti neti’ of the hindu mystics referred to in the post #76 above, but when they then talk of ‘atman'”brahman” paramatman”, they fail their own premise. The “not this” becomes a “this”.

  74. Re #80: I think you’re missing the whole point here. The point is exactly that it is absurd to expect to find a modern biography of a great man. And yet there is a tendency for x-buddhists to believe, against all reason and without any evidence, in the “single source or inspiration.” Why do you need so desperately for there to have been on single individual who arrived at a great and world-changing insight? This is exactly the insistence on the triumphal power of the great individual to exceed its causes and conditions that the literary figure “Buddha” teaches us does not and cannot exist.

    You have a very naive understanding of the philosophy of science. The principle that we can only disprove and never prove is an ideology of science, and fortunately is not how any real scientists actually operate–if it were, we would still be in the iron age! Only in the pseudo-sciences like psychology and the neurology-of-the-mind can you simply “but into” the study that says what you want; in real sciences, if it doesn’t get results, you won’t be able to “buy into” it for very long.

  75. Hi Tom

    Tom said: “Why do you need so desperately for there to have been on single individual who arrived at a great and world-changing insight?”

    I am not desperate, I am surmising dispassionately (at least I feel I am!).
    I agree there is no ‘need’ for a hagiographised legend to be perpetuated. That a legend grows is a characteristic of human psychology and cultures. This need not be seen cynically. It happened (and still happens). Any ‘opinion’ of that process is not as relevant as that it did happen, especially if there is no new factual information to replace it.

    But I can’t see how there wasn’t some individual having a new insight (or, let’s say, putting a new language to describe a human experience) that led to that growing movement that became ‘buddhism’. It is possible many people have experienced what is ascribed to the figure we call the Buddha, before and after him, but did not term their experiences or insights the same way? There may be a woman living on your block who is called, by one person’s terms “a sweet old lady” but may be, if certain criteria are applied, a buddha!!. This hypothetical woman would not go around building herself up as a legend in her own lunchtime, and I am sure any historical person who had that original insight did not go around proclaiming the legends that were later attributed to him.

    Usually any ‘world-changing insight’ is a culmination of many factors and precursors, but I can’t think of any that occurred without, at some stage, an individual having that insight after sorting through and synthesising stuff, then sharing it with others. Can you?

    It doesn’t mean we actually know who that person was, or, if we do, that we know much about them. If you look at western philosophy and science, particular individuals are the ones who make a breakthrough. When trigonometry was first used (as far as we know) to predict distances of ships from port, there must have been someone who first worked out how to do that. It’s not something we are born knowing or everyone just started doing simultaneously.

    Or are you of the opinion that there’s a zeitgeist that leads to numbers of people suddenly seeing the world differently (but in the same way differently) at the same time. That no ‘one’ was first?

    Tom said: You have a very naive understanding of the philosophy of science. The principle that we can only disprove and never prove is an ideology of science, and fortunately is not how any real scientists actually operate”

    I like to think of it as a ‘fundamental’ understanding, an essential foundation to understanding what science can and can’t do.

  76. Re 82: For me, this is an enormously important question, that relates to the most important concepts of Buddhist philosophy:

    “Usually any ‘world-changing insight’ is a culmination of many factors and precursors, but I can’t think of any that occurred without, at some stage, an individual having that insight after sorting through and synthesising stuff, then sharing it with others. Can you?”

    My answer would be, yes, every single one that we have any evidence of. Newton and Leibniz both came up with the calculus at the same time; Alfred Russel Wallace beat Darwin to the punch with evolution. The world-changing truths emerge in discourses and practices, and we feel compelled to give a name to them, to attribute them to a special individual. On my understanding of the concept of no-self, this is the most important delusion to get rid of. The need to believe in an originating genius is an ideology that is I don’t think is useful. It assumes atomistic brains with improbable capacities are the only source of progress in knowledge–applying such positivist capitalist ideology to Buddhism is common, of course, but I can’t see how it is helpful.

    There may have been (I think there was) an actual person who started the Buddhist movement and held particular beliefs, but uncovering his original thoughts is really unimportant–if Newton made a mistake in his original text on calculus, we would accept the correction, right? When we read Aristotle, we feel free to disagree with him while learning from his insights. We should take this same attitude toward the Buddhist texts, and not be concerned with whether they were actually the words or beliefs of a single “genius.”

    Your “fundamental understanding” of science is really an ideology of what it can and can’t do, which functions only to confuse people and hinder real progress. Fortunately, no real scientists follow this Popperian belief in the importance of falsifiability when they design their experiments–it is more likely to be a guiding understanding for those in the pseudo-sciences. Science progresses by proposing models, metaphors to help us understand and interact with the mind-independent world, and we do experiments to test how well those models work. They can’t really be “falsified,” they can only be shown to be limited. This ideology of science has been exhaustively critiqued in literally hundreds of books and articles, yet it is still a common feature of many undergraduate textbooks. I think it’s just another example of the “you can’t handle the truth” approach; a “correct” philosophy of science is just “too complicated” for most people, so we’ll give them an incorrect one instead. Ask a philosopher of science about Popper, and they turn kind of green–they can’t bear to have yet again the discussion that they have had a thousand times in person and in print.

  77. 82, 83-

    This has always been an important issue for me. In my experience in x-buddhism the whole notion of Buddhism being this history of collective knowledge and agendas has not been denied, yet everything is always couched in this framework-THE BUDDHA SAID. If one can stay with the notion that Buddha stands for history of collective knowledge, then that’s not a big deal, but I have to wonder. I’ve heard teachers say that The Lotus Sutra is not literally true and in the same breath say it’s the most important teaching because the sutra says so. It’s all such a slippery slope and quite exhausting. I kept going back to sanghas and teachers because thay had that aura of causal incidental authority. I wanted what that acted like they had. Such BS.

    The other issue here is what Tom discussed concerning Newton etc. We look at these past thinkers as part of the conversation but we don’t venerate them much less see them as infallible. Somehow, this does not happen in Buddhism. Of course Aristotle had some major insights, but I’m not lighting incense and bowing to him every night before bed. I love Neil Young, but he has made some horrible albums.

    The rub for me is that I keep coming back to this blog hoping to ‘finally get it’ much like I did with x-buddhism. Also, I don’t want to give up my meditation practice. For me it just clears the cobwebs to think about what ideologies I get caught up in. Also, I think I might shave my head because it will be easier to get ready in the morning 😉 Maybe this will be a remnant after the sun blows up.

  78. Craig (#84).

    The rub for me is that I keep coming back to this blog hoping to ‘finally get it’ much like I did with x-buddhism. Also, I don’t want to give up my meditation practice. For me it just clears the cobwebs to think about what ideologies I get caught up in. Also, I think I might shave my head because it will be easier to get ready in the morning Maybe this will be a remnant after the sun blows up.

    The new closing statement that we’ll be experimenting with in our sitting group:

    We leave here none the wiser, having added nothing to what we knew already. We’ve picked up that wrinkle in the band of hope. How end?

    I posted on the front door:

    We still don’t understand why you need our services–you know, a person like you. Oh well, come in.

    And our “meditation” instructions:

    Someone: What’s happening?
    Someone else: Something is taking its course.

    “The crux: you sum up and clear out.”

    (Apologies to Sam “the no-man” Beckett.)

  79. 85-Glenn,

    Thanks, that’s helpful. I really have nothing to say about meditation other than ‘it helps’ and I do it ’cause I want to. No wisdom or goals or hope or guru. Alas, I’m probably blind to some ideology. I guess it’s impossible to land. Beckett’s the man. I can see the opening and ending of meditation session being ‘this is completely absurd.’

  80. Ah, Beckett! Maybe he sums up the x-buddhist project best:

    “From time immemorial rumour has it or better still the notion is abroad that there exists a way out.”

    from THE LOST ONES

  81. Re #83 Tom said “There may have been (I think there was) an actual person who started the Buddhist movement and held particular beliefs, but uncovering his original thoughts is really unimportant–if Newton made a mistake in his original text on calculus, we would accept the correction, right? When we read Aristotle, we feel free to disagree with him while learning from his insights. We should take this same attitude toward the Buddhist texts, and not be concerned with whether they were actually the words or beliefs of a single “genius.”

    You have actually rephrased what i thought I was saying with that paragraph e.g. “(I think there was)” and “if newton made a mistake.. etc” These ar what i was saying. I see much buddhism as a reaction to brahminism in the way that Christianity reacted to Judaism. I see much in buddhism that was already there in Jainism. I see much in buddhism that could have come from animism and/or shamana traditions. And definitely the experimentation that went into buddhism lets me appreciate the later post-yogacara and mahayana developments as being that, developments rather than corrections.

    I agree that the “original buddha” even though he lived a long life of teaching, was unlikely to have articulated everything attributed to him – more likely those who followed interpreted and expanded on what they had understood… etc.

    On your arguments re: science. Many friends and acquaintances are scientists or in related fields. I have worked in an ancillary capacity for a while in collating data for HENP (nuclear physics) dept measuring CERN bubble chamber experiments. I agree with you on this level – science and philosophy of science can be two different things, just as theoretical physics and applied physics are different. This episode of my life, based on the people I met, led me to the possibly trite conclusion “you can tell a good scientist by the art hanging on his walls” – works for me anyway.

    However when you say ” They can’t really be “falsified,” they can only be shown to be limited” this is plain wrong. Just one famous example. What about Einstein’s observation of Mercury which might have falsified his Special Theory? A straightforward observation that would have said aye or nay? More mundane – every trial of new medicines to see if there are falsifiers to the hypothesis ‘these are safe for human consumption within certain parameters”?

    But with buddhism i think we are not dealing with maths or science as such (although buddhist practice is very personally experimental, it is by its own premise not able to be repeated identically!) – we are more dealing with an art, and if Socrates was right that the highest art is philosophy, then with buddhism we are dealing with the philosophy of philosophy (in its broadest terms – theoretical and applied) and of what it means to be human. None of this story – buddhism, science, maths, art, our perspective – can be totally separated from history or culture even though that effort is worthwhile (e.g. Sam Harris wrote that we should try to abstract buddhism’s true value from them the same way we manage to separate algebra from Islam).

    In summary Tom, we can say we are in agreement or, depending on what degree of hair-splitting we want to go to, in disagreement!

    Craig #84 said “The other issue here is what Tom discussed concerning Newton etc. We look at these past thinkers as part of the conversation but we don’t venerate them much less see them as infallible. Somehow, this does not happen in Buddhism.”
    This dilemma depends on how you see buddhism – an external practice and dogma that others do and you adopt to imitate, or as an essentially personal path. The sociological, cultural ‘religionisation” of buddhism is not intrinsic to it, in the same way that I can enjoy Neil Young even though I don’t have to agree with other fans or even, if i met him to ask directly, with Neil himself! which albums are the best and which the worst. Are you seeking someone else’s enlightenment?

  82. 88
    thanks for the response. no, not seeking enlightenment anymore. and as far as ‘not agreeing’ with other buddhists, well, that’s easy and difficult…especially in settings where some sort of transcendent dharma is assumed and one only need sit for many, many hours to realize it. i think the ‘imitate’ part is a big issue that is alluded to here all the time. good point about the religionisation of buddhism not being intrinsic to it…hence, speculative non-buddhism to break free!

  83. Re #88: Your comment about Neil Young is, it seems to me, related to your inability to grasp my point about the philosophy of science. Taste in music is not of the same order as truths about reality. Our musical opinions are a part of our ideology, and while this may be limited by our understanding of reality it is not completely determined by that understanding. This analogy doesn’t clarify, but obscures, the question.

    No empirical observation can “falsify” a conceptual model, because no conceptual model is real or true in a falsifiable way. If it turns out that there is no such thing as a universal force of gravity on empirical observation of remote part of the universe (say, once we invent faster-than-light-travel), this will not mean that the conceptual model of gravity we use to accomplish things here on earth will be “false”; it will still work just as well, and we probably won’t even need to adjust the formulas. The issue of medical testing is different; that is not a matter of an empirical observation contradicting a theoretical model, but of an empirical observations refining our estimate of the prevalence of something in the real world, such as sensitivity to a medication. The point of the test is that we have no theoretical model to tell us how common this sensitivity is, and can only rely on probability and observation.

    These points are hard to clarify in a comment, without it getting awfully long. If the issue about falsifiability really interests you, try reading the essay I wrote here about “Nagarjuna and the God Particle.” Or, for a much better discussion of this matter by a real philosopher of science, take a look at Bhaskar’s classic “Realist Theory of Science.”

  84. Hey Tom

    I fully agree that “taste in music is not of the same order as truths about reality” but then again no metaphor is ever of the same order as the thing it refers to. As a muso I’d disagree with your (necessarily brief) explanations about what forms musical opinions – but that’s another story and who’s to say which of us is more correct, or just expressing themselves more clearly, or cleverly, or in sympathy with current trends, or another’s person’s presumptions… etc.

    My real point was that the human condition cannot be fully ‘explained’ through logic in discourse. If a ‘logical’ explanation is presented about the human condition, like buddhism, as logic is only a part of what it means to be human, it therefore is not enough.

    And what each of us considers as ‘logical’ is informed by so much more than just logic itself. So we each find different aspects of buddhism makes more sense to us than other parts.

    The parts of that logic which speak to me may be different to the parts that speak to you. Even if we both dig the same section of a sutta, we may be inferring different things from the same passage. Then there’s how to account for translation from another language, then what that language meant at the time it was used compared to what scholars today think it meant, what you understand of what the scholars translated compared to what i understand of that. You like ‘this’ translation of this Sutta, I understand that philosopher’s take on that in my way.. and so on.

    That’s where we have to find and bring the rest of ourselves along to the party, determine why something is logical for each of us, how we rationalise it all. It is fruitful to utilise dialectic in a positive way to test, refine and broaden our understanding. But unlike physics or maths, is it fruitful to ever say categorically that someone else is wrong when it comes to these intangible areas?

    Just as you say in your second paragraph of #90, that a model is valid if within certain parameters it works even though from other parameters it is nonsense, is that not more so the case with something like buddhism?

    Isn’t buddh-ism in whatever form different from “buddh”, just another model (although different from most in that it understand that it too is only itself a model)?

    For some a historical buddha is a given. For others it is a question. For others it is a mythological phenomenon, for others totally irrelevant. Wherever anyone is at, that is the stone they stand on. Discussion and interaction with others may see them step this way or that, but they can never stand where you are standing. Does ‘awakening’ depend on knowing what is historically true or even caring about it? (My answer to that is, it may for some and may not for others)

    I will follow up the links you refer to. Thanks.

  85. Why do Buddhists believe in a Sunday school version of the Buddha ?

    I don’t think its an easy question to answer. The world ‘belief’ vaguely, in today’s scientific context points to some mechanism of reconstruction of a worldview that varies from person to person. Some physicists believe in a 11-dimensional universe, others believe in a multi-verse composed of sheet-like branes.

    However, as a Buddhist, I would best try to address the question as we really approach it in our Sunday school. Starting with the concept of ghosts.

    How can you prove that ‘you’ yourself exist as an individual ? Morphologically, how do you differ from anyone else, both are clumps of cells, identical forms of physiological systems. Would you consider that your unique DNA finger-print defines you ? Perhaps, it does represents an aspect of who you are, but is that you ? I don’t think so, because the odds were high that you would have been aborted as a foetus (4 out of 5 conceptions or so, end up in an abortion, some estimates suggest), you actually wouldn’t have emerged as your current self. Even then, with the influence of your epigenetic development, the same DNA blue-print might have resulted in millions of variants of yourself with very differing characteristics.

    Cutting directly to the chase, there is no other proof that you exist apart from a reconstructed image of yourself in your head. You still cant call it a proof, as people with multiple personality disorders , etc etc have multiple identities in their head; often they don’t know which one is real. Neither do other independent observers. You can at best validate that you exist based on judging the behaviours of other people observing you, most of the attributes you use to ‘define yourself’ – your height, interests, traits, tastes in fashion etc etc are derived from comparative data that you receive as feedback from other participants in your environment. Think carefully here – without anthropic comparative data, not a single attribute that you can ascribe to yourself relates to your actual physical existence as a distinct entity.

    When culturally reconstructing the Buddha, a similar process of collating attributes takes place. In the absence of audio-visual footage or photographs, people have more creative choice in the matter. Generally they tend to reconstruct the Buddha in a very favourable light, as somehow, his reputation of being a person of substance tends to be better than say, Emperor Nero. By the way, did Emperor Nero exist ? How can we be sure he wasn’t reconstructed post-hoc as a literary device ? Is it because you rely more on Roman historians compared to ancient Indian chroniclers ? If on the other hand, you consider that without audio-visual evidence, you wouldn’t admit anyone’s existence as a fact, then its a general truth you accept : not one historical figure can be considered anything but fictional.

    Such forms of logical arguments, in the real world are however irrelevant to many of its actual participants. In Buddhist tradition, Nichomanean tradition, Confucian tradition all adherants have their specific set of attributes to culturally reconstruct the most likely personality they can, of the source or originator of the tradition. Buddhism must have originated from somewhere (like Islam or any other tradition). It could have been created one fine morning, as a complete fictional device, by some Pali or Sanskrit speaking monk with a highly creative intellect for fictional character composition. Here’s where rationality sets in : the probability of that happening, given the widespread nature of Pali documentation running into tomes, appears to be negligible to people who have actually personally examined the evidence.

    In that sense, reconstructing yourself as a figment of your imagination, and reconstructing the Buddha as a figment of my imagination, are not very different processes. We largely perceive what we believe ‘exists’, and if you believe that you are more than a clump of cells, which can create a representational image of itself in its own nervous system with an ‘artificial’ set of linguistic attributes which it ‘believes’ itself to be true, then so be it. You have created a ghost of yourself in your pre-frontal cortex, much like as a Sunday Buddhist, I have made a ghost of Buddha in mine.

    Namo Buddha.

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